Anni Friesinger thinks speed skaters are sexy. "Our speedsuits are very light and you can't hide anything," she says. "We have big muscles, but they're not that big. And it's muscle, not fat. It does look good." But ask the 25-year-old German if she said, as has been reported, that skating is "pure erotic," and she'll deny it sort of: "I didn't say it! They asked me yes or no, so I just said, yes!"
Her outspokenness, plus her willingness to smile (and undress) for the camera, has made Friesinger a darling of fans and media. And as much as people like her off-the-ice antics, her on-the-ice success is at least as noteworthy. The 2001 world all-around champion, she has dominated the World Cup circuit this season, winning all but one of her middle- and long-distance races and establishing herself as the hot favorite for Olympic gold.
The daughter of two world-class speed skaters, Friesinger got an early taste of glory when she won the 1996 World Junior Championship. Since then, her skating has been inconsisent. Bursts of brilliance a 3000-m bronze at Nagano, a 1500-m gold at the '98 Worlds, the 2000 European all-around title were matched by disappointment, such as back problems that sidelined her for much of 1999 and a crash at the 2001 European championships in which she hurt her neck and her knee.
Ironically, that injury may have been a turning point, taking pressure off and giving her room to perform to potential. At the Worlds in Budapest four weeks later, Friesinger won the all-around title. She proved it wasn't a fluke by setting a 1500-m world record at Calgary the following month, before capturing the world title at the same distance. Her explanation for success is simple: "I'm healthy ... so I've been training harder. I have also had more discipline and not going out too much."
Her rise on the rink has been matched by her popularity among fans in Germany and the skating-mad Netherlands. Now a regular figure in Germany's tabloids, she is showered with praise for her sporting success, "cheeky tongue" and "sexy charisma." But why the revealing photos? "There is nothing better than a speedskater's bum," she wrote in Max magazine. "I find it extremely exciting to observe how [my body] changes in the course of a year."
Such openness hasn't won over her teammates or Germany's skating establishment. Friesinger has alienated them by training on her own and by criticizing the state system. She once said that if she were to train in a system that "slavishly" followed old-fashioned methods, "I would die there." Friesinger has also had a public and catty battle with compatriot Claudia Pechstein. Six years ago, when Friesinger failed to show at the German championships, Pechstein suggested that her rival was feigning illness. At this year's European meet, it was Pechstein's turn to claim illness, though she chose to stay and beat Friesinger in the 5,000. Friesinger said afterward that Pechstein "couldn't really have been that ill." Pechstein shot back: "She speaks ... like she is in kindergarten."
They can take their fighting words to Salt Lake City, where Friesinger reckons that Pechstein will be one of her toughest opponents, especially at the longer distances. Another obstacle will be the intense pressure from others to win. "Everybody is expecting the gold," she says. "It's crazy." Or maybe they've just figured out that gold is her color.