The Missed Turn: Celebrating the Career of German Freestyle Star Franziska van Almsick

Franziska van Almsick

The Missed Turn: Celebrating the Career of German Freestyle Star Franziska van Almsick

Earlier this year, Swimming World debuted a new series titled, The Missed Turn. The bimonthly feature is designed to highlight the career of an athlete who may not have received proper appreciation for his/her achievements. This month, we look at the career of German freestyle star Franziska van Almsick.

The number is startling. Ten. Double digits! That’s the number of Olympic medals she won over the course of four Games. Four in Barcelona (1992). Three in Atlanta (1996). One in Sydney (2000). Two in Athens (2004). How many athletes would sign up for that type of success? How many athletes would yearn for a career that included that type of longevity?

There is a reason Franziska van Almsick is an inductee of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She was a superstar—at a young age…and as a veteran. The German showcased her incredible talent in the freestyle events, excelling from the 50-meter sprint through the 400. The midpoint of those distances was—as the cliché goes—her bread and butter.

In her homeland, “Franzi” was widely celebrated. She was a unique talent in the pool, and her complementary beauty led to modeling opportunities and major endorsements. Put those attributes together, and it’s not surprising she was widely known by a one-name moniker and was easily picked out while walking down the street.

Yet, nearly two decades after her farewell Olympic appearance in Greece, van Almsick is not discussed as frequently as she deserves. It could be the missing Olympic gold medal from her portfolio (her 10 career Olympic medals is the most without ever winning gold). Perhaps it’s because Germany is not the power it once was. Whatever the reason, van Almsick surely shouldn’t be overlooked.

TIMING ON HER SIDE

Born in East Berlin, East Germany, on April 5, 1978, van Almsick was a pre-teen when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and Germany was reunified. At that point, having followed her brother into the sport, van Almsick had displayed vast potential in the water. She attended one of the sports academies intended to identify and develop youngsters into champions.

Franziska Van Almsick

Really, van Almsick is fortunate that timing was on her side, and that she emerged as an international standout in the early 1990s. Up until the Berlin Wall fell, East Germany operated a systematic-doping program that fed its athletes anabolic steroids to guarantee their success on the worldwide stage. Some of the swimmers who van Almsick idolized, such as Kristin Otto, were victimized by that system. Had the Wall not crumbled, van Almsick—almost surely—would have been introduced to performance-enhancing substances.

“It was all a shock,” she once told Sports Illustrated. “These were my idols. I was too young to be involved, but I think now: ‘What would have happened if all of this never had come out? What would have happened to me? I probably would have followed right along.’”

Luckily, the reunification of Germany brought about change, and van Almsick was able to proceed with her career. Even better, she was allowed to let her raw talent shine—and nothing more. If there was any doubt concerning her potential, she used the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona as a launching pad.

At just 14 years old, van Almsick earned four medals in Spain—two individual and two in relay duty. She was the bronze medalist in the 100 meter freestyle and garnered the silver medal in the 200 freestyle, where she touched the wall just behind American Nicole Haislett, 1:57.90 to 1:58.00. A silver and a bronze were also secured in relay action.

INTERNATIONAL REIGN

What van Almsick delivered in Barcelona was just the start of an international reign of spectacular proportions. At the 1993 European Championships in Sheffield, the German walked away with seven medals, including six gold. She swept the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles and was the silver medalist in the 100 butterfly. Two years later, she added six medals at the European Champs in Vienna, including a title in the 400 freestyle.

In between those editions of the European Championships, van Almsick etched herself as a world champion in the 200 freestyle—albeit in unusual fashion. Racing in Rome in September 1994, she mismanaged her preliminary heat and found herself in ninth after qualifying. While it appeared she would stunningly miss the final, her teammate Dagmar Hase opted to scratch out of the event, a move that placed van Almsick in the championship race.

There are multiple theories surrounding Hase’s decision to scratch, ranging from payment to allow van Almsick a reprieve to illness to the fact that she wanted to focus on her other events. Regardless, “Franzi” was given a lifeline, and she took advantage of the second chance, even if she initially did not want the opportunity.

Surging off the blocks, van Almsick packaged the finest race of her career, a world record of 1:56.78 flashing on the scoreboard. The effort broke the eight-year-old world record of 1:57.55, set by East German Heike Friedrich in 1986, and the swim enabled van Almsick to hold off China’s Lu Bin (1:56.89), who was also under the previous world standard.

“I didn’t even want to be in the final,” van Almsick said. “I’ve never had this feeling. I just didn’t care. I swam. I looked up at the end. World record…This is a dream come true. I didn’t think I would break the world record. All I could think of was (Hase), who gave me the opportunity to compete. I talked to her afterward in the stands and just said thank you.”

EVERYTHING BUT OLYMPIC GOLD

As a testament to van Almsick’s longevity, she lowered her world record in the 200 freestyle almost eight years later at the 2002 European Championships in Berlin. Her performance of 1:56.64 endured as the world record until March 2007, which meant she held the global standard for 12-plus years.

Of the 10 Olympic medals claimed by van Almsick, four were silver and six were bronze. More, three arrived in individual action, with seven secured through relay work. In 1996, van Almsick won her second straight silver medal in the 200 freestyle when she finished behind Costa Rica’s Claudia Poll, 1:58.16 to 1:58.57. It was a difficult finish to take, given van Almsick had been nearly two seconds faster during her first world-record effort.

Among the Olympic Games, World Championships and European Championships, van Almsick collected 20 gold medals, nine silver and eight bronze. The only missing element is an Olympic gold, either individually or as a relay contributor.

“For my personality, it was very good not to have achieved something in life,” van Almsick said of missing out on Olympic gold. “I am happy and thankful for the life I live. I have two healthy kids, a wonderful family. I live humble, and I surely do this because I did not fulfill my biggest dream in life.”

“FRANZI”

Throughout the history of the sport, many of the premier names are known by one name, be it real or a nickname: Duke. Johnny. Dawn. Thorpey. Michael. Katie.

From the early 1990s into the early days of the 21st century, Franziska van Almsick established herself as an all-time great, her presence critical as Germany moved on from its dark days of doping. Certainly, she can get by with one name.

Forever, let’s remember “Franzi.”

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