When Ralf Braun touched the wall after his 200 backstroke at the German Nationals in Leipzig last May, it looked like his critics may have been right. His time of 2:01.65 was way off the European qualifying standard of 2 minutes. To add insult to injury, he was second. It was a poor performance for the man who had won silver in Perth, but he knew the reasons why.
"I started my studies in Business and Communications last fall," said Braun. "I had a full course load and it wasn't easy to fit in all my training. I could only train half as much as I did before the world championships, and I wasn't completely fit."
There were many discussions in the echelons of the German Federation (DSV) that night but, "they figured I was good for a medal." Braun was named to the German team for Istanbul.
There had been some resistance from within the DSV to Braun's enrolling in studies at all in a pre-Olympic season. "I didn't listen," he says. "I waited two years to get into this program, and I know there is life after swimming. It was time to concentrate on my university education because I stand to make more money in the long run from my job than I'll ever make in swimming." A pragmatic move, and given the results of the summer, the right one.
The studies seemed to compromise everything as Braun joined the German team late in Istanbul due to a final exam. The 26-year-old admits that on arrival in Turkey he didn't think he could win a medal.
And then came his race, and the new semi-final format. "I was an opponent of semi-finals before," says Braun. "But actually, when you think about it, it gives you another chance to make the final. I've never been a morning person and find it really hard to swim fast early in the day. In Istanbul I got into the semi with a slower time. Then I had a semi-final in the evening, and the final the following evening - both at times that were right for me."
German officials and coaches wiped their brows in relief during that final swim. Their decision to take him despite not having qualified paid off as Braun won the gold medal in 1:59.74. It wasn't his best performance ever, but the Berliner says, "for me it was the perfect race."
"I hadn't trained that much and was expecting to go 2 minutes flat. When I saw the time, and the place, I couldn't believe it. I swam that race very evenly, concentrated on the turns, and came back on it. It was actually a nice race. There was one point when I thought I could give up because so many were ahead of me, but I thought I'll get through one more turn and see. And then I went for it."
As European champion, Braun is serenely realistic heading into the 2000 Olympics and the ultimate challenge with his main opponent, Lenny Krayzelburg. When he saw the American's performances from Sydney he was speechless.
"It's pretty amazing to see one man swim world records over all three distances (50, 100, 200). And the 200 record was something of a legendary one, and Krayzelburg took nearly a second off it," says Braun.
"When the Pan Pacifics were on I couldn't help but think of the American track athletes at the world championships in Seville," he continues. "How does one man run so far ahead of all the others? The rest of the elite swims behind (Krayzelburg). I won't approach 1:55 in Sydney. I know that already. But I do have the chance for a silver."
Braun assures that he won't be arriving in Sydney wishing he had trained more. After an initial semester this fall, he plans to take time off until the Olympics. There are lots of training camps already marked on the calendar and his competition season is still in the planning stages.
On the eve of his departure for an altitude camp in Flagstaff, Arizona, Braun is busily hooking up a new computer. He's satisfied with his new lifestyle, and with having stuck to his choices. "I'm enjoying the studies," he says. "And I've got lots of training ahead. As for Sydney, Krayzelburg is the man to beat. I usually decide how to swim on the day, according to the competition. I'm pretty flexible that way."
And if Lenny Krayzelburg wants to submit to a blood test, so will Ralf Braun.