The image will forever linger with anyone who spent time at Seoul's Olympic Indoor Swimming Pool: a tall, blonde woman, gold medal around her neck and a bouquet of gladiolus gently cradled in her arm, facing the flag of the German Democratic Republic for the playing of Auferstanden aus Ruinen, her nation's anthem. Nearly every day, 22-year-old Kristin Otto took to the victory stand, gave a polite wave to the crowd and returned to her East German teammates. "She is certainly one of the greatest women swimmers of all time," said 1984 U.S. Olympic coach Don Gambril, understating the case. "She reminds you of Tracy Caulkins."
While many fans were caught up in the heroics of Janet Evans and Matt Biondi of the U.S., the 6'¾" Otto was quietly piling up swimming medals as has no woman in Olympic history. She powered her way to six golds—roughly the same haul she might have had in Los Angeles in 1984 if her nation hadn't boycotted those Games. "She's best because she works harder than the rest," said Wolfgang Richter, the East German coach, tapping his head with an index finger. "She's tough up here. She cannot stand to lose."
That quickly became as clear as the water in the Olympic pool. Otto swam away with the 100-meter freestyle last Monday, won the 100 backstroke last Thursday and came from behind last Friday to win the 100 butterfly (with world-record holder Mary T. Meagher of the U.S. far back in seventh). She also led off for East Germany's triumphant 4 X 100 free relay team on Thursday and contributed a devastating backstroke leg to her country's gold-medal-winning 4 X 100 medley relay on Saturday. In her final event, the 50 free on Sunday, she beat world-record holder Yang Wenyi of China by .15 of a second.
Otto's performance broke the record for most gold medals won by a woman in any sport at one Olympics (four), which had been shared by seven athletes, among them 1976 swimming star Kornelia Ender, Otto's revered country-woman. "I didn't come here with a plan to win many gold medals, just one or two," said Otto. "I'm happy and quite frankly, astonished."
October 2, 1988
Otto led a team that was predictably strong. The East Germans—who have dominated women's swimming since the 1976 Games—won 10 of 15 women's events in Seoul and might have swept them all had it not been for triple-gold medalist Evans, surprise 100 breast-stroke champion Tania Dangalakova of Bulgaria and 200 back winner Krisztina Egerszegi, 14, of Hungary.
East Germany's showing in both men's and women's events (11 golds, 8 silvers and 9 bronzes) was especially impressive in light of the large number of countries awarded swimming medals in Seoul. A record 21 nations earned medals, among them Costa Rica (6'3" Silvia Poll got a silver in the women's 200 free), China (its fast-improving women received three silvers and a bronze) and Suriname (whose Anthony Nesty, a University of Florida sophomore, won the men's 100 fly). Among the many Eastern European medalists, the standout besides Otto, was Tamàs Darnyi of Hungary, who not only swept his two long-anticipated showdowns with Dave Wharton of the U.S.—in the 200 and 400 individual medleys—but also smashed his own world records in both events. In all, swimmers from four countries shattered 11 world marks.
Otto set no world records in Seoul, but she didn't have to or particularly want to: Winning was her goal. She draws favorable comparisons to Caulkins because of her versatility—Otto has won world or Olympic titles in backstroke, butterfly, freestyle and IM events—and because she is such a battler. Otto only hints at the pain of missing the Los Angeles Games, and she shies away from questions about the cracked vertebra she suffered in late 1984, an injury that put her in a neck brace for nine months. At the time, Otto was advised by doctors to give up sports, but she refused. She came back to win six medals at the '86 world championships, including gold in the 200 IM and silver in the 100 fly, two events she had never before entered in international competition.
Otto, whose mother is a physiotherapist and whose father is a college physics professor, grew up and resides in Leipzig, East Germany's second-largest city. She's an avid reader of crime novels and has something of a reputation among her teammates as a clotheshorse. Since age 11, when she was identified as a swimming prospect through East Germany's scientific scouting program and put into a special sports school, most of her attention has been on swimming.
Otto has sometimes been accused of being dour and undemonstrative—even her victory-stand smiles in Seoul were quick and guarded—but she explains that as reticence. "I'm a happy person, but I'm different from the Americans," she said. "I'm not an extrovert."
"Kristin has a very warm sense of humor," added her personal coach, Stefan Hetzer. "She's always telling jokes. But she's also the most concentrated athlete in her work. She does everything I ask."
As the swimming competition finished in Seoul on Sunday, Otto prepared to return to Leipzig to complete a one-year internship with the state radio station. It is the first of what will be three years of study for her in journalism. "I'm just starting out, so I cannot say what kind of journalism I will enter," she said. "I don't think it will be in sports."
That makes sense. After all, she might never get to cover a sports story that would match her own.