Therese Alshammar might show you her tattoo. But only if she likes you. Or wants to use you. Or is in the mood. The tattoo is in the very small of her sleek and powerful back, below the line of her swimsuit, in a spot where a paramour might place his hand if he were dancing with her. She might even show it to you by slipping off her shirt without embarrassment and then kneeling, so you might study the contrast of the blue-black letters against her smooth, tanned skin and admire how the arch of her back makes the letters ripple: DIVA. Alshammar is Swedish, unfettered by American prudishness. Feline, she might pose, chin up, unabashed by the stares of passersby.
"Diva means goddess in Latin, you know," Alshammar says with a sly smile. She is raven-haired (this month) and thin-lipped, with striking gray eyes that pierce on command. Her English is excellent, the lilting Scandinavian accent plowed under by two years at Nebraska. "My friends in Sweden all used to call me that: 'You bleeping diva, you think you're so great.' I was a bit of a lazy girl. A tosser." She notices the blank expression. "A tosser is someone who's not giving it her best all the time. The tattoo was done in the spring of 1997 in Arizona, while I was visiting schools. I showed it to one photographer, and it became a big thing in the Swedish papers. That's all right. That's what I think I am. I think all women are divas."
Hmm. Yet certainly not all divas are Olympic athletes—and world-record holders—and not all Olympians are alluring enough to be named Sweden's sexiest woman, as Alshammar was in 1998 by Cafe, a popular Swedish men's magazine. "That's fun, but it didn't change my life," she says. "I don't list it as one of my major achievements." Still, asked if she's relinquished her crown, she says coyly, "Once the sexiest, always the sexiest. It's for life."
This is a lady built for the 21st century. She's not human; she's a heroine out of a video game. The 23-year-old Alshammar has cover-girl looks, a physique sculpted for power and speed, and an independent streak as wide as an eagle's wingspan. The sexiest woman in Sweden also chews snuff with the ardor of a cowboy—in May she had her teeth whitened to get rid of the tobacco stains. Undeterred by the health risks, Alshammar vows to continue to put a pinch between her cheek and gums whenever she feels the need to relax. "Two things I'll never give up: snuff and coffee," she says with a shrug.
She also happens to be one of the best freestyle swimmers on the planet. "She's just finding out how good she can be," says her best friend, Destiny Lauren, a fellow Swedish swimmer who tried to get Alshammar to change her name to Divine the day she got her tattoo. (Lauren changed her name from Mikaela to Destiny that day.) "Ninety percent of swimming is mental, and Therese is strong that way. She's forward, very cocky, very confident."
As her performances of the past year indicate, she should be. After years of cultivating a party-girl image, Alshammar has blossomed under German coach Dirk Lange, with whom she trains in Hamburg, and become a medal favorite in both the 50 and the 100 freestyle in Sydney. During the European championships last December in Lisbon, she set the short-course world records at those distances and then eclipsed those times last March in Athens at the world short-course championships, swimming a 23.59 and a 52.17, respectively. Most of the world's top freestylers were at the worlds, including Sandra Volker of Germany, who also trains under Lange, and Jenny Thompson of the U.S., a five-time Olympic gold medalist and the American-record holder in the 100. "I've kicked Thompson's butt a couple of times," Alshammar says. No shrinking violet, she. She's a beauty with brass balls.
A woman with those qualities knows where she stands, and where she has been, which in Alshammar's case is further afield than most. She's always been torn between living—really living—and sticking to a regimen of serious training. Her mother, Britt-Marie, was a breaststroker at the 1972 Olympics. Now a pistol-packing undercover policewoman, Britt-Marie taught Therese (the eldest of the two daughters she had with husband Krister, a house painter) to swim, saw her potential and coached her until she was 10. Then she wisely passed Therese off to other coaches and stepped back to watch her go through all the adolescent phases.
"My goal had always been to beat my mother, to be better than her," Therese says, "but when I reached 13, I didn't like swimming that much and wanted to quit. My friends were hanging out all the time, and there I was, training. I was bored. My mom said, 'Take four weeks off this summer, and in the fall we'll decide.' "
In the fall, Therese agreed to enroll in the best junior sports club in Sweden. She began living away from home, training five and six hours a day, going to school with other swimmers. That regimen eventually drove her up the wall and AWOL. When she was 16 she up and took a two-week skiing trip with her boyfriend. "I told my parents school was on holiday, though it wasn't," she says. "It was great fun. Then my mother called and said she'd gotten a letter from school saying I was missing. 'What about your training?' she asked. I told her that skiing was training, in a way. My father told me I had to make a decision. I was screwing up school and screwing up swimming. So I switched to a normal school. It's too boring to just hang out with other swimmers. That helped clear my mind."
She made the Swedish national team, but in 1995 her undisciplined behavior landed her in trouble with the coaches. "I was thrown off the team," Alshammar says. "They thought I was an unserious kid. I was 18."