By Craig Lord
FUKUOKA was earmarked as the place where Germany aimed to exorcise the ghosts of the Olympic Games in Sydney, where the team's underperformance still haunts the national swim scene. To a great extent that exorcism took place.
But for Germany's best-known aquatic star and the world's best paid swimmer of recent years, Franziska van Almsick, the 9th World Swimming Championships represented yet another reminder that the best in the world in water have moved on and she can longer keep up.
Van Almsick, 23 and still world record holder over 200m freestyle since becoming world champion in Rome in 1994 in 1:56.78, was not on the blocks in Japan; a persistent disk problem in her lower back kept her away from the German trials, the national championships held in Braunschweig in May.
Van Almsick's absence and lack of form left a big gap in Germany: no swimmer achieved the qualifying time of 1:59.50, and the winner of the trials, Sarah Harstick, 19, took her place on the blocks in Japan for Germany with a best time of 2:00.88, while Franzi watched back home in Berlin and contemplated her future.
The media, meanwhile, continue to pose the burning question: is that the end of one of the world's most famous swimmers?
If you'd have asked Franzi that question after Sydney, she would have said "yes". Now, however, despite her latest injury, she says she is on the comeback trail, her inspiration a fellow loser at the Olympic Games, Stefan Kretzschmar, a member of the national handball team whose underperformance matched that of Germany's swimmers.
After finishing 11th in the semi-finals of the 200 m freestyle in Sydney before clocking a first-leg relay split time that would have placed her second going into the final of the individual event to help Germany collect the bronze medal in the 4 x 200m relay, Franzi suffered an emotional collapse. "It was the worst of times – something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy," said Van Almsick in an interview with Die Welt, a German newspaper.
The swimmer had been subjected to a stream of bad publicity in the German press before the Olympic Games. From her weight – unflattering pictures of
her were published in abundance – to her lack of determination to succeed in Sydney, all stories were critical of Van Almsick. After Sydney it got even worse.
"I was deeply hurt," she said. "I had prepared at a three-week long training camp in Brisbane before the Olympics and was in the form of my life. But somehow no one on our team could transform that work into success in the Sydney pool. Looking back, I felt like I was at the forefront of all the blame that was aimed at the team."
It was in that depressed mood that she found comfort in a soulmate who has suffered similar humiliation in pursuit of sporting excellence – Stefan Kretzschmar. From the friendship that the pair developed in Sydney, love blossomed and Van Almsick is now seen regulary at the handball ground in Magdeburg where Stefan plays for his local team.
It was Kretzschmar who helped convince the swimmer not to hang up her suit and goggles.
"I thought for quite a while about quitting," said Van Almsick. "After the Olympics I went on holiday to the Maldives with my family and had enough time to think about it. By the time we left, I still wasn't sure what to do."
Her boyfriend gave her back the self-confidence that had so often stood her in good stead. "It was only after a few months that I felt that the fire inside me hadn't died. I am a very bad loser. The worst thing would have been to give up and find that I had only myself to blame for being a loser."
As such, she returned to training and several weeks into 2001 she clocked 2:03 over 200 meters at a race in Austria while in heavy training – proof, if proof were needed, that she still had much work to do if she were to make the national team for the world championships.
It was then that the back injury grew worse and forced Van Almsick to withdraw from the German trials for Japan. Speculation was rife that this would, indeed, be the end of the fastest 200 meters woman the world has known.
Franzi sees it as merely another twist in an ever-changing tale. Since the Games in Sydney, she has founded her own company with her brother – a company that films portraits of sports stars and has internet links – and has seperated from her long-term manager Werner Koester after eight years.
That seperation was cathartic for Van Almsick, who saw it as a chance for a new beginning. Koester had made her into the Anna Kournikova of the swimming world. But the several million Deutschmarks that he helped to
place in her pocket never did provide the incentive for turning up to training twice a day, week after week, month after month – a regime she had endured since her pre-teen years.
Kretzschmar has convinced Van Almsick that she has more to offer in the pool and Franzi is now back in training in Berlin, where a year from now, before a home crowd in the city where it all began so many years ago, she hopes to shine anew at the European championships.