Germany's favorite sportswoman right now is Franziska von Almsick. The Berlin swim diva won five gold medals in the European Championships held in her hometown.
Franziska van Almsick is Germany's golden girl
"Franzi", as she is affectionately known to her fans, can't quite believe her luck, nor can the German swimming community.
"I think it won't really sink in, till I've got a bit of peace and quiet," van Almsick told reporters Sunday after winning the final leg of the women's 4 x 100m relay - her fifth title of the European Championships. "It seems like the whole city's gone crazy So I've just gotta pack my bags and leave and then I think I will slowly start feeling something."
After almost writing Franzi off for not coming home with enough medals at the Sydney Olympics, the German swimming community has gone wild with excitement.
The golden girl was on the front page of most German newspapers Sunday and Monday. And for good reason.
In addition to Sunday's relay gold, Franzi was part of two other winning relay teams and scooped up the gold in the 100 meter and 200 meter freestyle, where she broke her own record.
"The 200 meters freestyle is my race," the Frazi told reporters after seeing her record time. "I grew up on it and I love to swim it. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in the event. It’s probably because I’ve become so attached to it over the years."
Franzi had set the world record eight years ago at the World Champions when she was just 16. On Saturday she topped it with 1 minute 56.64. When the magic numbers went up on the score board, Franzi’s fans broke into a deafening roar. The swimmer herself fell to her knees and cried in disbelief.
Success not a guarantee
But Franzi’s gold medal sweep was anything but a sure thing prior to the start of the championships.
The 24-year-old, who had spent much of her sporting career trying to uphold her reputation as a swim star, frequently let down her fans and her team. After rising to stardom at the Barcelona Olympics and cashing in on mega advertising deals, Franzi suffered a series of injuries and personal problems.
Her swimming successes became fewer. After a crushing defeat at the 2000 Olympics, Franzi retreated from the limelight and considered giving up swimming altogether.
The Berlin championships last week was the first sign that Franzi was back on track.
"All I wanted to do was make a comeback. That's what I was fighting for, and why I always believed in myself. I was on the right track at the start of the week; but nobody can knock me now after the world 200 meters freestyle record. And that feels good," she told reporters.
The whole German team came up trumps in Berlin, winning a total of 36 medals, 15 of them gold. No other country came close in Germany’s medal tally as the advanced to the status of Europe's number 1 nation in swimming and diving.
Never before had Germany been so successful in international swimming competitions. The squad clearly profited from being on home territory.
Thomas Rupprath, two-time gold medal winner in 50 meter backstroke and 100 butterfly, described the event as "indescribable... the crowd atmosphere just got better over the last days." Such sentiments were heard often throughout the week-long event. "It was a crazy atmosphere," added teammate Stev Theoloke, winner of the 100 meter backstroke.
Christa Thiel, president of the German Swimming Federation, was especially pleased with the team’s results. "The team effort was sensational. At the moment we can look contentedly into the future."