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Karin Helmstaedt

The German television crew came to Monte Carlo for a reason.

Not only was the "other" German swimming star, 23-year-old Sandra Všlker, competing in two 50-m events, but they were waiting for her in the television studio on Saturday night in Mainz as the star of ZDF's new sport series, "Ace of the Month."

While Franziska van Almsick wavers and loses ground, Všlker is charging full speed ahead.

The tall, raven-haired sprinter came through with a world best performance (29.00) in the 50 backstroke, and finished her qualifying rounds of the 50 freestyle before boarding a plane to Germany for the television appearance. She returned to Monaco first thing next morning, showing up at the pool in time to swim the semi-final of the 50 freestyle.

Indeed, Všlker takes her role in the sport seriously.

Asked whether she thinks swimming can successfully cross the line into professionalism, she answers a categoric "yes," adding that people like van Almsick, her arch-rival for attention and publicity, don't help the image of the sport by staying out of sight. "She does very little television, and few competitions," she comments. "I haven't seen her for months."

It is an interesting comment from a woman whose frequent aloofness, as much as Franzi's, has caused occasional problems for the press. But she's particularly receptive today.

"The two things go together," she acknowledges. "It's clear that when you start performing well you are going to be chased for interviews, and I don't always like to talk to journalists, especially during a competition. But most of them understand that now."

Born in Lźbeck, Všlker joined the national team in 1989, moving to Hamburg in 1991 to train with Norwegian coach Orjan Madsen. After the 1992 Olympics, where she finished 16 th in the 100 backstroke, she turned to her partner, Dirk Lange, for guidance in the pool. An ex-national team backstroker himself, Lange took it upon himself to redesign Všlker's training program.

With a few major changes, the results have been more than tangible. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Všlker was second in the 100 freestyle (54.88), third in the 50 freestyle (25.14), and added a bronze in the 4x100 freestyle relay. In December, at the short course European Championships in Rostock, she won the 50 (24.67) and 100 (53.04) freestyles and placed second in the 100 butterfly (59.44). At the short course Worlds in Gšteborg she was world champion in the 50 freestyle (24.70; 24.62 in the heats), took silver in the 100 (53.50), and swallowed a disqualification after winning the 100 backstroke.

Lange, who coaches a group of four swimmers including British sprinter Mark Foster, explains that the difference in Všlker's training lies in the emphasis put on running, track exercises, and weight training.

"She can run 100 m regularly in 12.6 seconds," he says, "And she does a lot of real sprints, 20 m and 50 m. Her weight training is done with an Olympic weightlifting coach."

Všlker also trains in a flume, where she has worked on swimming at a higher velocity than the world record for short bursts (15 seconds)Ńin several strokes. "That way she is more relaxed because she knows she can swim every speed. She has 'learned' the speeds of just about every one of her competitors," says Lange.

"Swimming is still the main part of my program, but the weight training and track work is very intensive," says Všlker. "I do weights three times a week for an hour and weekends I run, do sprints, skipping, and various other athletic drills."

And a very candid Všlker admits that the live-in-coach-and-swimmer arrangement has it's "occasional disadvantages."

"There are seldom problems in training, but if problems arise outside, or sometimes if I'm angry with him for something, it gets carried into the other domain. It's not always easy to balance the two things."

Unlike many of today's top swimmers, both Všlker and her coach believe in frequent competition, and she often has at least one top performance up her sleeve. A week before Monaco, she posted a 25.24 for the 50 freestyle at a meeting in Charleroi, Belgium, a time that put her on top of the rankings.

"I wasn't really prepared at all, and I was extremely surprised to be able to swim that fast," she says.

"I compete a lot because I am always confronted with different things," she continues. "Maybe the water is too cold, or the blocks are slippery, or maybe the hotel is no good. I like to be put in these kind of situations because it helps me to learn. Then when I go to a World or European championships and something is amiss, I feel more sure of myself. I know that I can perform anywhere."

Adds Lange, "Because she competes a lot she knows all of her competitors. She has seen them all and is less likely to be surprised."

While she would like to take up studies later, Všlker put school on the backburner this year to concentrate on sport and "make some money while I can."

"Besides, this year is too full of competitions," she smiles. With two major sponsors, Adidas and Wolf (heating and air conditioning specialists), she can, for the time being, live from her swimming. "The sponsors make things a lot easier," she admits. Eventually, she dreams of opening a pool or sport centre with her name on it.

Which gets back to the issue of notoriety. Všlker wants to be long course European champion, before clinching the long course world champion title. If her recent results are any indication, she seems to be on her way. And with van Almsick out of commission for the summer due to a hand injury, the stage will be all hers.

"It has occurred to me that if the German teams had not been unified, I would be the top female athlete in Germany together with Steffi Graf," she muses in answer to the inevitable question on reunification.

A surprisingly honest reflection, it is proof that her determination is as strong as her capacity to excel. That of course, is the kind of champion Germany needs.

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