She was eight years old, maybe nine. The big wall at the end of the playground at the Robert Koch elementary school did not seem strange to her. She remembers no great conversations about it, no explanations. A 15-foot wall is a 15-foot wall when you are eight. Or maybe nine. The barbed wire at the top did not seem strange because it had always been there. Even the fact that the windows on that side of the school were painted black was not surprising. Wasn't that the same at all schools, everywhere?
Franziska van Almsick probably could have gone a few more years never noticing the wall, never wondering what was on the other side, except one bright East Berlin day, while everyone was playing soccer during recess, another kid kicked the ball very hard. Up and up it went, higher and higher, up and over the wall! Franzi and the rest of the kids stared. The ball was gone? Where did it go? A boundary to life had been discovered. What would happen next?
The ball suddenly came back.
Franzi was delighted. Kick the ball over the wall and it would come back? She picked up the ball and kicked it over the wall again.
The ball came back again.
Three or four times she repealed the process. A teacher suddenly hurried out and took the ball away. Franzi was reprimanded in front of everyone else. Never kick the ball over the wall. Never throw anything over the wall. Never do anything with the wall. Understand?
No one ever kicked the ball over the wall again, but now there was a change. What was on the other side? There was a question.
She was 11 when the wall was torn down in 1989. She no longer went to the elementary school because now she attended a special school for athletes. She was a swimmer. Her brother, Sebastian, five years older, was also a swimmer, and she had started in the sport simply by following him to workouts and meets. She seemed to have a gift. Coaches noticed her. They put her through a series of tests, looking at her size and coordination. If she had been short and heavy, the officials would have rejected her, but she was tall and limber. She became a swimmer. That was how the East German system worked.
"If I'd lived somewhere else in the country, on a farm or somewhere, I would have had to go to a boarding school," she says. "But since I lived in Berlin, I could live at home and attend the school in Berlin. I took a train and then a streetcar every day for an hour and a half to get there. The school was set up to help training. Classes did not start until 10:30 in the morning so we could train. School was finished at 4:30 so we could train again. If we went away for a training camp, the classes were suspended until we came back. We could pick up our lessons where we had left them. High-performance sport was very important in East Germany."