For promising young athletes, a place at one of Germany's 40 elite sports schools is a dream come true. These are the training grounds for future Olympic medalists, where the stress is on balancing sport with schoolwork.
Aspiring Olympians study at Potsdam's sports school
The Potsdam Sports School is one of the most prestigious of its kind, but at first glance the designation "elite" seems a bit of a misnomer. The buildings are charmless concrete blocks, typical of former East German architecture; the green spaces are unkempt, and some of the walls are covered in graffiti. But this is the elite training center that produced such luminaries as Uwe Hohn, the best javelin thrower of all time, and Birgit Fischer, the world's top woman canoeist. Britta Steffen, the current world record holder in 100 meters freestyle swimming, was a boarder here for six years.
In the Potsdam school's 57-year history, its athletes have won a total of nearly 70 Olympic gold medals. The headmaster, Ruediger Ziemer, is proud of the fact that 22 present and former pupils were selected to compete at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Britta Steffen studied and trained at the Potsdam school
"Of all the elite schools in Germany, ours was by far the largest contingent," he says. "With four golds, two silvers and four bronze medals our score would have placed us 17th on the list of nations."
Establishing a healthy balance
Six-hundred children and young adults aged between 12 and 20 attend the school in Potsdam. This is where they train, and the majority of pupils also live at the school. All of them are talented - so what is it that distinguishes a talented sportsperson and turns them into a champion?
The key lies in establishing a daily routine that creates a healthy balance between physical and mental exertion and relaxation, Ziemer says.
"They have to be able to radiate confidence while dealing with the huge demands made of them, both by their involvement in competitive sport and by their academic schooling. Here they also get to work with specialists who know exactly when a child needs attention, or when a child has a problem."
All of this, he says, is what can turn a young athlete with the right physical and psychological abilities into a successful Olympic medalist, which is, of course, what all the students dream of. That's why they endure the rigorous daily routine, which doesn't leave much time for leisure activities.
Fourteen-year-old Lynn describes her day as one long round of training and studying: "After we get up we have breakfast in the canteen, then we have the first two hours of training, then we have school until 3:15 in the afternoon, then at 4:00 it's training again. Then we have dinner, do our homework, have a shower and go to bed."
Everything is focused on helping them achieve their goal of rising to the very top of their discipline.
Setting high standards
The concept of elite schools is a controversial one in Germany. Many people associate the term with the special schools in communist East Germany in which high-achieving pupils were expected to contribute to the glorification of the communist ideal. Prior to this, "elite schools" were also a part of the Nazi ideology.
Ziemer's (l.) school gets financial backing from the state government
Though he found the term unproblematic, Ziemer admitted that many other schools in the area were uncomfortable with it. But people have been getting used to the change, he said.
"The pupils are absolutely fine with it now. Instead of seeing it as a problem, they say: there is a very high standard here that I've got to live up to, both in terms of my behavior and in terms of my achievements in school and in sport."
Ziemer believes that, in this context, the word "elite" can be a positive incentive, as it encourages high aspirations. For many of the children, being accepted by the school is a dream come true.
Thirteen-year-old Chayenne, for example, is delighted that the school gives her the opportunity to exercise her passion for football without neglecting her schoolwork.
"It's a bit like being in a long-term soccer training camp where you're with your friends the whole time," she says. "You miss your family sometimes, of course; but that's nothing we can't handle."
Author: Sarah Faupel (cc)
Editor: Nancy Isenson