SWIMNEWS ONLINE: September 1996 Magazine Articles

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"I don't let myself get down when I lose, so that's why I always come back."

Karin Helmstaedt

There are many words to describe Dagmar Hase's swimming career: difficult, relentless, unusual, successful, satisfying. And singularly German.

At 26, Hase has taken her last bow. She came to the Olympics in Atlanta and went home with medals in all of her events. Three silvers (400 free, 800 free, 4x200 FR) and a bronze (200 free). Not bad for a swan song. And as she says, "I also have the gold medal (from 1992) at home, so I am extremely satisfied."

One of the last of the former "Wundermädchen," Hase was born in Quedlinburg, East Germany, in 1969. She was recruited to swim at the sport school in Halle and later went to live and train in Magdeburg.

Raised in one of the most formidable sports machines ever established, she has come through the years of politicized, state-organized training, the years of instability after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of the two Germanies, and the widening of horizons-and uncertainties-into the free world. While many former East Germans swam through the "Wende" (changeover) in 1990, Hase is one of the few to have made the transition from the East German team to the unified German team with considerable success.

Four Medals for Dagmar Hase in Atlanta
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

"It was a little difficult (in the beginning)," she says of the amalgamation. "But I think we needed some time to adjust. Now after six years we are doing very well together." It should be noted that, six years later, a very high percentage of the German swim team members are from the former East Germany.

"In the GDR the support was very different," she says. "We went into sport schools at the age of ten. Sport came first over education. Now that's completely changed. First education and then sport."

She goes on, refusing to articulate the obvious difference between the two systems. "I also trained a lot more then-six hours a day as opposed to four hours now. Actually we don't have as much training time as we would like, but I think we've done our best with it and the success shows it."

Long and successful career

Hase joined the East German national team in 1989 and won gold in the 200 backstroke at the European Championships that year in Bonn. While her performances prior to 1990 are now stigmatized by the GDR's well known doping practices, Hase, seemingly unhindered by all the political and structural changes, continued to progress.

At the World Championships in Perth in 1991-the first time the two German teams competed together-she was second in the 200 backstroke and swam on the gold medal-winning 4x200 freestyle relay team. Showing remarkable versatility, she went on to medal at the 1991 Europeans, and had her best showing ever at the 1992 Olympics, winning the 400 freestyle (4:07.18) and taking silvers in the 200 backstroke (2:09.46, the German national record) and the 4x100 medley relay. Since then she has medalled at every major competition except the 1994 World Championships.

And at the end of her career, in Atlanta, she swam best times in the 200 (1:59.56) and 800 (8:29.91) freestyles.

Hase says that the only thing that motivated her after 1994 was the desire to see the Olympics again. "It was still a big dream of mine. I had a fantastic experience in 1992-it gave and brought me so much that I wanted to live it again. Of course I would have liked to win again, but I'm actually very happy with the silver medals."

"For me, if I'm going to stop I'd like to stop on a success, and I think one cannot imagine a better goodbye," she adds.

Dagmar HASE
LCM100 Free200 Free400 Free 800 Free100 Back200 Back400 I.M.
1996 - - - 1:59.56 4:08.30 8:29.91 - - - 2:13.51 - - -
1995 - - - 2:00.33 4:18.56 - - - - - - 2:10.60 - - -
1994 - - - 2:00.29 4:11.21 8:40.10 - - - 2:20.71 - - -
1993 - - - 2:02.12 4:10.47 9:04.68 1:03.88 2:15.47 - - -
1992 57.442:00.92 4:07.18 - - - 1:01.61 2:09.46 4:58.24
1991 - - - 2:01.08 4:16.91 - - - 1:02.41 2:12.01 - - -
1990 - - - 2:02.39 - - - 8:48.74 1:02.94 2:12.73 4:55.47
1989 57.28 2:00.48 - - - - - - 1:03.42 2:12.46 - - -
1988 57.27 2:00.95 - - - - - - 1:03.91 2:15.44 - - -
1987 57.63 2:02.97 - - - - - - 1:05.03 2:17.09 - - -
1986 57.96 2:01.57 4:18.69 - - - - - - 2:19.76 - - -
1985 - - - 2:03.01 4:17.09 - - - - - - - - - 4:56.50

Often controversial

Hase has often found herself at the centre of controversy. After her victory in Barcelona, she dedicated her gold medal to her former teammate and good friend Astrid Strauss, who had been suspended in 1992 for an excessive testosterone level. Strauss firmly denied having taken the hormone, claiming that a night of drinking before the surprise test had affected her epitestosterone-to-testosterone ratio. Whether guilty or not, the GDR drug legacy sealed her fate and the suspension stood, thereby ending Strauss' career. Hase's show of support for her friend was a poignant moment in the new era of German sport-and a clear stab at the critics of the former East German athletes.

The most memorable incident remains the famous "switch" at the 1994 World Championships in Rome, when Hase gave up her place in the final of the 200 freestyle to her teammate Franziska van Almsick. At 16, van Almsick was Germany's top medal hope and media darling, and a poor morning swim had put her in 9th place. That night, swimming in lane 8, van Almsick won the event in world record time, and Hase was passed off as a martyr, or a convenient pawn.

She explains that three weeks before the World Championships she was at a training camp in Mexico. Upon her return to Europe she got very sick. "I continued to train and didn't listen to my body," she says, "so for the Worlds I was definitely not in shape."

"That's why I gave Franziska the spot, because she was only 9 th, and I could then concentrate fully on the 400 free. The 400 was more important for me. But the disappointment came one day later when the same thing happened to me: I was 9 th, another German was 8 th, but I didn't get the chance to swim in the finals in the evening."

Painfully thin and obviously ailing in Rome, Hase also finished 9 th in the 800 freestyle. She says that normally she is far too individualistic and competitive to give up a swim in the final. "I wouldn't have done it had I not been sick, had I been feeling myself. One just doesn't give up one's spot like that."

When asked if she regrets the decision, she sighs.

"In the final analysis the decision was the right one; Franziska set a world record and was world champion. I was only disappointed with my own placings. With all the reasons, I knew why I was in such bad shape, but it did bother me and it probably would have been better had I not gone to Rome at all."

At times outspoken, at times reserved, Hase has often been labelled "difficult" by the press.

"I'm not a simple person," she admits. "People really have to be able to handle and understand me. My coach (Bernd Henneberg) has been successful in doing that. He knows me inside and out and knows how to deal with me."

"I'm very much for honesty and openness, and what is perhaps also very important is my strength of will and ability to fight. I don't let myself get down when I lose, so that's why I always come back from a fall."

Few endorsments

One could argue that Hase's career has been as impressive-if not more so-as that of van Almsick. Nearly ten years Hase's junior, Germany's most coveted Covergirl is also a former "Ossi." Van Almsick was deemed too young (only 11) when the Wall came down to be tainted by the system, and her outstanding performances coupled with her good looks have made her into a superstar to rival the likes of tennis pro Steffi Graff. Prior to the Olympics, van Almsick's endorsement portfolio was worth roughly $8 million.

And yet Hase has the ultimate-an Olympic gold medal. Franzi doesn't.

When asked if she can live off her swimming, Hase says wryly, "Franzi can live very well from it. She's had a lot of luck and has also made swimming very popular in Germany."

"I think we can all be satisfied with (Franzi's success) because otherwise we all would have disappeared from the limelight," she says.

There is no resentment, only maturity and distance in her voice when she adds, "Although I won the gold four years ago, I didn't get any endorsements, but I actually live fairly well. I take what I can get. It's not a lot, but I can live on it."

Dagmar HASE
PLACE Quedlinburg, GDR
HEIGHT 5 ft. 11 in. / 183 cm
WEIGHT 138 lbs / 63 kg
HOME Magdeburg, GER
OCCUPATION Travel Agency Manager
COACH Bernd Henneberg
96 Olympics 3rd 200 free 1:59.56, 2nd 400 free 4:08.30,
2nd 800 free 8:29.91, 2nd 4x200 FR
95 Europeans 2nd 200 back 2:10.60, 1st 4x200 FR
94 Worlds 9th 800 free 8:40.85
93 Europeans 1st 400 free 4:10.47, 1st 4x200 FR
92 Olympics 1st 400 free 4:07.18, 2nd 200 back 2:09.46,
2nd 4x100 MR
91 Worlds 8th 100 back 1:03.24, 2nd 200 back 2:12.01,
1st 4x200 FR
91 Europeans 3rd 100 back 1:02.41, 3rd 200 back 2:12.21,
2nd 4x100 MR, 2nd 4x200 FR
89 Europeans 1st 200 back 2:12.46
Holds German 200 back record 2:09.46 from 92

Little family life after the age of 10

One of the scars left by the East German regime is exposed when Hase talks about her family. Her parents now live near Köln, some 450 km away, and she sees them only rarely. "This is sometimes a problem," she says, explaining, "I lived for 10 years with my parents and then basically left the house. From Thale to Halle we were 100 km apart, and I had very little contact with them. This is of course a little sad...parents are something different from anybody else...but in the end one gets used to it." Clearly a system that hand-picked children, confining them to promote its political ideology through sport, did nothing to foster family relationships.

On the eve of her retirement, Hase finds herself unable to say what comes next. No longer an East German, her future is in her own hands. There is no more system to look after it. Having sacrificed her education for her swimming career, she has no schooling other than a travel agent course. She will return to her partner of three years and her Doberman Kaja. And she will see.

After her silver medal performance in the 800 freestyle in Atlanta, a race that is "not really her distance," German television reporters asked Hase about her plans. The years of control, of German reserve, fell away for an instant, and tears came to her eyes as she explained that these were definitely her last Games. She is happy. She is ready for a change. Change is something she has weathered before. This time the change is her own choice.

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