German swimming star hopes to bid farewell with first gold

Franziska van Almsick is feeling right at home in the birthplace of the Olympics, the perfect stage for a golden farewell. The German swimming star won’t be back at the Games again and Athens is her fourth and last chance to finally add the one thing missing from her resume – an Olympic gold medal. «There is a really nice atmosphere here. We only arrived yesterday and my legs were still a bit tired this morning but it all went away after the practice,» van Almsick said yesterday. «They are greeting the Games here with ‘Welcome Home,’ and I really feel at home here. The conditions are very nice.» Van Almsick has been chasing Olympic gold since the 1992 Games in Barcelona. There, as a 14-year-old sensation, she won two silver and two bronze medals. Four years later she went to Atlanta expecting nothing less than gold in her specialty, the 200-meter freestyle. Instead, she ended up with the silver again. Her greatest disappointment came four years ago in Sydney – van Almsick didn’t even make the final. Once the darling of German media, van Almsick became the target of cruel headlines poking fun at her perceived overweight. The failure in Sydney led van Almsick to change her life. She dropped many promotion contracts and virtually withdrew from public life, ignoring celebrity parties and similar events. She also worked hard at her sport. At the 2002 European championship in Berlin, she shattered her 200m freestyle world record by clocking 1 minute, 56.64 seconds. Another world record may be needed for the gold medal in Athens, and although she makes no secret of how much she wants it, van Almsick says she is ready to accept whatever happens in her final race. «I want that 200 gold. I’d never gone so much out on a brink before a championship, but I really want it this time. I came so close before. I am well prepared, I practiced well and it has to click now. It’s my last attempt. I just had to give it one final try. But if I don’t succeed, it’s not going to change my life. For me, such things don’t have the importance they once had.» She is coming off a training stage at the Spanish island of Mallorca, where the Germans shared the pool with the Americans. There, she told reporters she would cry if the lost the gold again, but that «it wouldn’t be the end of the world.» She said she wasn’t concerned about the Athens heat, the wind or the fact that the Olympic pool has no roof. «I really don’t care about those things. The conditions are the same for everyone,» she said. Van Almsick will warm up for the 200 meters by swimming the 100m butterfly and in the German 4x100m freestyle relay team. The Germans are the world recordholders and van Almsick said she wasn’t in the team purely to prepare for her best event. «I want a medal in the relay,» she said. Once her 200 final is over on Tuesday, van Almsick will become a dedicated Olympic spectator and a big fan of the German handball team, whose star is her boyfriend Stefan Kretzschmar. (AP)

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