Franziska van Almsick - The Unfulfilled Dream, Part 3

Some of the greatest athletes of the world have tried in vain to win an Olympic gold medal. We portray them in this series.

The name of her homepage says it all: Franzi - to Germans it's as simple as that. Even at age 38, Franziska van Almsick is called by and famous for her teenage nickname. It has become a household brandmark all over the country, in TV spots and the yellow press. But "Franzi" means business: When she criticizes Germany's swimmers as a TV expert or works as a fundraiser for the national athletes help network Deutsche Sporthilfe, there is nothing sweetheart about the woman, who - as a teenage girl - became the country's first post-unfication sports icon.

Still, one dark spot remains in van Almsick's career: She never won an Olympic gold.

When van Almsick (picture: Augsburger Allgemeine), one last product of the GDR's youth sports development program, burst onto the international swimming scene in 1992, she was just 14 years of age. On the early evening of July 27th, she stood on the starting block for the finals of the 200 meters freestyle at the Barcelona Olympics, having qualified in the fastest time. The German media were already nuts about their new darling from Berlin after she had taken bronze in the 100 meters 24 hours before. There was a real chance that the little girl could take it all.

But it was not to be. Van Almsick swam ahead of the pack for almost 180 meters, but on the home stretch, she zigzagged a little through the pool, perhaps due to a lack of experience. In lane five, American Nicole Haislett sneaked by the German wunderkind and beat van Almsick by one tenth of a second.

Nobody would have expected that this was going to be the closest van Almsick would ever get to an Olympic gold. What followed was a career of high drama with a lot of titles, records and profits from commercials, but no Olympic gold.

After becoming world champion and world record holder at Rome in 1994, van Almsick was again considered a heavy favourite for the 1996 Atlanta Games. But again, she could not stand the pressure in her best event, losing the 200 meters to Costa Rica's Claudia Poll, who was of German descent.

Things got even harder for van Almsick four years later at Sydney. Out of shape and with visible overweight, she had no shot at a medal. A German tabloid called her "Franzi van Speck" and a "pig". She rebounded from the disaster with another world record at the 2002 European Championships in her hometown of Berlin, but finished only fifth in the 200 meters freestyle at the 2004 Athens Games. When she retired afterwards, she had collected ten Olympic medals - four silvers, six bronzes, no gold.

When asked about that missing gold in August 2016, the now mother of two had no regrets: "For my personality, it was very good not to have achieved something in life.  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 fulfil my biggest dream in life." (picture: dpa)

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