"All of a sudden, I'm a Nazi," Franzi says. "I didn't say Hitler was good. I said the opposite, that he was horrible and did some horrible things, but there was one day off in the European championships and everybody needed something to write. They wrote this."
There have been stories about her relationship with her boyfriend, Steffen Zesner, a German swimmer who will also compete in Atlanta and who happens to be 10 years older. There have been stories about her mother, allegations that Jutta, a gymnastics coach, was also an informer for the Stasi, the GDR's secret police. Allegations denied. There have been stories and more stories. Franzi! She has become an industry. She has toured the world since Barcelona, competing and training. She lived for 11 weeks last year with a family in Coral Springs, Fla., to learn English. She dropped out of high school this year, when she would have been a senior, to train for the Olympics, afraid that if she tried to stay in school, her marks would suffer and she would have trouble getting into a good university. She will return to school in the winter.
Her life has become this huge, inflated balloon, this dirigible of notoriety. Even qualifying for Atlanta became a show. She did not swim a strong race until the third day of the German trials, winning the 200 after failing to make the team in the 400 and qualifying for the 100 only by tying for second. She will swim the 100, the 200 and three relays, but the German press was in a dither. What was wrong with the country's aquatic heroine? Had her time been spread too thin with promotional stops and interviews? Had money and fame corrupted her talent? Or was she simply being her unpredictable self? "If I hadn't qualified in the 200," she told German TV, "I would have gotten a piece of rope and hung myself."
Her heart is in the East, the country she knew. That is the side of Berlin where she still lives in the same modest house, sleeping in the same bedroom where she put that Barcelona sticker on the window eight years ago. She knows that all the money and much of the fame would not have come if the wall at the edge of the school playground had not disappeared, but she is saddened by some things that have happened. The people of the East remain the poor cousins at the German table, salaries lower, housing inferior, life inferior.
"I can pick out someone from the East in Berlin," she says. "We are the people...I don't know how to say this in English, we are the people carrying the plastic bags, shopping bags, while the people from the West have other kinds of bags. We are the people who always have a look of wonder on us when we see things. If you took us to New York, we would be the ones looking at the tall buildings. The ones from the West would be just going about their business."
She mentions New York because this is the one place she picked to visit with her family. Her mother and father, when she was young, always talked about visiting America in general and New York in particular. It was a faraway East German dream that never could happen. But Franzi made it happen. At the end of her stay in Florida, she sent plane tickets for her parents and brother to meet her in New York for a three-day weekend. "We did everything," she says. "We went to the top of the Empire State Building. We walked on Fifth Avenue. Trump Tower. We went to a Broadway show, Beauty and the Beast. It was everything my parents always wanted."
In the middle of the weekend she took the family to Central Park and made everyone sit on a bench. She said that if they waited, actor Tom Cruise would walk past. "We sat there for an hour and a half," she says. "Tom never came. So sad. We got up and left."
Too bad, Tom. You could have met Franzi.