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Culture

German Swim Diva Surfaces after a Two-year Dive

Germany's Franziska van Almsick swam her way to gold at the European Swimming Championships on Tuesday. A far cry from 2000, when she was written off by the media after a row of injuries and personal problems.

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Gold win - Franzi at the European Swimming Championships

Her concentration on her sport was clear for all to see: At the European Championships in Berlin on Tuesday, Franziska van Almsick was still meditating as her teammates took to the water for the 4x200 relay.

But only a matter of minutes later, Franzi, as she is popularly known, rounded off the race by powering to gold.

After two years in the sporting doldrums, Franziska van Almsick, Germany’s most well known swimming star, is back in the limelight. On Wednesday, the 24-year-old won one of her fastest races in recent months, plowing her way to a gold win in the 100 metres freestyle race.

After the race, an obviously overwhelmed van Almsick told reporters: "This is the happiest moment of my life!".

Natural swimmer, born winner

Franziska van Almsick was born in Berlin in 1978. When she was 5, she followed her brother doggedly to his swiming training at a local sportscentre. It was here, in an east German sports centre that her love and talent for swimming were born.

At the age of 11, she won her first gold medals at a nationwide German youth contest. It was in 1992, at the Barcelona Olympics, that the 14-year-old made her first major breakthrough, returning home from the contest with 4 medals in her suitcase.

Franziska’s greatest triumph was in 1994 at the World Championships, when she swam the best race in her life, setting a world record in the 200 metres freestyle final, which still stands today.

Darling of the Media

By this time Franziska von Almsick was already a star on the international stage. Famed for her natural good looks, easygoing attitude and perky sassisness, she soon became the darling of the press.

Within months of her first major swimming success, the Berlinerin graced posters and screens advertising for products ranging from chocolate and cars to skin cream and fashion.

But with the persistent media focus on Franzi’s sporting - and in particular - private sphere, the swimming princess' seemingly perfect life began to unravel.

Life under media glare takes its toll "At 17 or 18 – when other girls are battling through puberty far from the spotlight – she was a media darling. That’s an age when you’re more preoccupied with yourself. But Franzi was always expected to perform at a world-class level – and the combination was just too much!", Regine Eichhorn, van Almsick’s manager says.

The pressure of being constantly in the limelight, of living up to her first successes and a string of injuries proved too much for Germany’s celebrated youngster.

Franzi fled the media attention, seeking support and consolation from her family. The media reacted by raining ridicule on their former favourite, including the "Franzi van Speck" ("Franzi van Fat") headline in a popular tabloid daily after Franzi’s disastrous performance at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

However, the Sydney games also marked a fundamental turn in Franzi’s unhappy life. It was here that she met and fell in love with Stefan Kretschmar, the German basketball player. With their relationship, her lust for life returned.

Franziska von Almsick Comeback für Frauengalerie

Her recent success in Berlin (photo) was the first sign in two years that "Goldfish Franzi", as the Germans like to call her, may well be back on track.

Still a dominant media presence Today, Franziska says "my personal life is in great shape. I have a fantastic family and a fantastic boyfriend. I’m just perfectly happy!".

While Franzi proves her swimming prowess in the pools in Berlin, her face adorns posters and screens across the city in a new Austrian mineral water campaign.

But the days when van Almsick was named "Franzi van Fat" are not forgotten. The advertisers have swapped the feminine figure on the poster from the neck down for that of an – obviously slimmer - model.

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