The next year, her suspension over, she trained hard and made the Swedish Olympic team as a backstroker, but she was mentally drained before she arrived in Atlanta and finished a disappointing 16th in the 100 meters. Afterward she wanted to get away from swimming, so she and Lauren, who'd failed to make the Swedish Olympic team, bought around-the-world airline tickets and spent the next four months in Australia. "The first month, we spent in Melbourne, going to the beach every day, surfing, having massages, tanning, clubbing, hanging out," Alshammar says, smiling at the memory. "I needed a change of environment."
She and Lauren also joined a swimming club in Australia and trained there for three months without a coach. Alshammar, eager to put the memory of Atlanta behind her, began to concentrate on the freestyle. She and Lauren returned to Sweden and rejoined the national team in time for the April 1997 world short-course championships in G�teborg, Sweden, where Alshammar won a bronze medal on a relay.
That spring Alshammar visited American colleges and got her tattoo (she has a second one, a copyright sign, beneath the DIVA, seen only by exceptional friends) and a full scholarship to Nebraska. She chose that over USC because she knew that the wild child in her couldn't resist the temptations of Southern California. "If I'd lived in L.A., I'd have done so much else besides swimming and studying that I'd have been constantly distracted," says Alshammar. "At Lincoln it was just swim, go to school, swim, go to school. They had great weight-training facilities, good food, and I had good friends, which are more important than good environs. It was a very multinational team [which included four Swedes, a Norwegian and a South African]."
Others at Nebraska give a somewhat livelier account of Alshammar's two years at the school. They cite, for example, the time that Alshammar, while doing a photo shoot for a Swedish album cover, painted herself silver and walked through downtown Lincoln topless, creating the predictable uproar. "She is her own person, and she makes up her own mind about things," says Cornhuskers sprints coach Keith Moore. Adds head coach Cal Bentz: "She wasn't always as focused on her training as you might desire, but when she did focus, she went straight to the top of her class."
At the 1998 world championships in Perth, Australia, Alshammar's best finish in an individual event was sixth, in the 50 freestyle. A year later she was DQ'd in the same event at the world short-course championships because of a false start. The setback convinced her that if she wanted to reach the next level, she had to give up school and focus on swimming. "It's hard to do both well," she says of competing and going to college. "I decided that the year before the Olympics I'd leave Nebraska and see how far I could go."
She was invited to train for three weeks in Hamburg with Volker, the 1996 silver medalist in the 100 free, and be coached by Lange. Alshammar liked working with him so much that she stayed. "In Stockholm it's 20 swimmers for one coach," she says. "With Dirk Lange I got an individualized program. He believes in hard training, then regeneration. That's the secret most people don't get. Everyone trains as if they're distance swimmers. But with Dirk, it's build up and rest. Build up and rest. Make sure you don't get too tired but train full out. Why do you train slow? You don't swim slow."
Under Lange, Alshammar swims for an hour in the morning and then lifts weights for 2� hours. "We weight-train for explosive power, which I'd never done," she says. "I used to bench-press 100 pounds 10 times in a row. Now I do 145 pounds in two or three repetitions. In the afternoon we run—sprints, which are my favorite thing. Intervals from 10 to 150 meters. If we swim in the evening, it's for two hours. I'm the same weight I was in America, 140 pounds [she stands 5'10�"], but my body fat is down."
Alshammar is also taking the supplement creatine for the first time, though she's reluctant to attribute her success to that. "It helps your muscles regenerate," she says, "but I don't think that's the reason I've improved. It's many reasons. I'm more dedicated than I was before, more determined, because I like what I do. I don't find it boring. Dirk gives us all the freedom we want. He doesn't care what we eat or when we sleep. Most coaches are not like that. Of course you shouldn't be out till five in the morning, but he gives us the freedom to decide. I've been to those parties. I know what they are about. Now I get more pleasure going to dinner with friends than going clubbing."
What does the post-Sydney future hold for the sexiest woman in Sweden? A broadcasting career? Modeling? Prince William? "I've had so many ideas over the years that I disregard them all," says Alshammar, who claims to be uninvolved romantically. "I'm quite happy the way things are, and I intend to swim at least four more years. For a woman, age 24 is your best for performances. When the time comes to stop, I think I'll know what to do with the rest of my life."
Divas and goddesses generally do, even those who come with a spittoon.