Steffen Takes The Sprint Double: 50m Gold in 24.06
Craig Lord
The 100m champion adds 50m crown0.01sec ahead of Dara Torres, 41 and a silver medal winner at her fifth Olympic Games

Britta Steffen (GER) became the third woman after Kristin Otto (GDR) and Inge de Bruijn (NED) to win the sprint freestyle doube when she kept 41-year-old supermom Dara Torres (USA) at bay by 0.01sec in 24.06, an Olympic record. On the last day of race action at the Water Cube, Cate Campbell took bronze in 24.17, locking teammate and world record holder Libby Trickett out of the medals.


The world's sprint queen is German once more, and Steffen's victory ensured that every women's freestyle crown at these Games went to a European, Federica Pellegrini (ITA) and Rebecca Adlington (GBR) doing their formidable bit.

Steffen's is a rags-to-riches story. In 1988, as the winds of political change blew through the cracks in the Berlin Wall, the young Britta was busy dipping her toe into the baby pool for the first time in Schwedt, an industrial workers' town dominated by the PCK chemical plant near Frankfurt Oder on the border with Poland.

Her first swim teacher at the SSV PCK90 club, Gunter Hinze, now 60, remembers "a small and dainty girl". He told a magazine in Saxony recently: "She was standing, very excited, on the edge of the pool and wanted to go into the water. She didn't have a costume with her so I gave her one but it was far too big and we had to tie it back with strings. Britta didn't care, she just wanted to learn how to swim. She was very independent. I taught her to swim within four weeks."

Within a couple of years she had moved up to coach Catrin Marschalek's squad. "Britta was very ambitious," the 43-year-old coach recalled. "She was small and always considered herself to be at a disadvantage but her gliding in water was superb, she had a lot of stamina and that's why I recommended her for a place at the sports school in Potsdam."

Skip through the years of development and arrive in Moscow for the European junior championships in 1999: Steffen won six gold medals, taking the 50, 100 and 200m freestyle crowns (26.08; 55.66 and 2:01.32) and all three relays with her Germany teammates). A star was, well, almost born.

Steffen won three senior bronze medals at the German national championships in 2000 and earned herself a relay berth at the Sydney Olympic Games, where Germany swam below expectations. Her return home coincided with the physical changes that every girl goes through, a time in life when confidence can so easily be dented.

In the midst of her first dip in form, Steffen changed coach in 2002, travelling to Berlin to train under the guidance of Norbert Warnatzsch and alongside Franziska Van Almsick, star recruit at the SG Neukoelln club. By 2004, the pretender was enduring up to seven and more hours training a day, getting through the work by reminding herself that other world-class swimmers, such as Alexander Popov (the Robbie Williams of swimming, she is said to have once called the great Russian), succeeded through tough regimes. She earned another Olympic relay berth in Athens but that fell well shy of Steffen's dreams and the talent so many had told her she had. The upshot: she headed for the door.

Her old coach, Marschalek, suggested that Steffen's problem was that she "could not handle the pressure". However, there was a deeper problem: the swimmer had developed an eating disorder, bad enough for anyone, lethal for an athlete. Warnatzsch kept a cool head, told Steffen that he saw in her the same qualities and talent that many had seen in Van Almsick and urged her not to quit. He urged her not to take time out but to swim through but Steffen insisted on a break. In an interview with Christof Gertsch, of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Switzerland, Steffen said that the coach had "wanted me to stay in the training and not to take a break" and was most unhappy when she decided to take time away from the pool.

 Steffen did take another piece of advice from her coach, however. During her break, she consulted psychologist Dr Frederike Janofske. Van Almsick had put her return to world-record-breaking times over 200m in 2002 in part down to working with Janofske. He helped Steffen to view her life and herself in a different, more positive, way and gave her a plan of action to turn herself around.

 Steffen agreed to the plan. She emerged from a fallow year healthier in heart and head, thanks to what Hanson alluded to: having good people around her. In late summer 2005 she returned to full-time training but approached the whole exercise with a different frame of mind. "I was enjoying it at last," she said, describing coach Warnatsch as being "like a father to me".

"The psychologist really helped to turn me round," she adds. "When I swam badly before I used to think somehow I was a bad person. Now I know how to differentiate between my swimming life and my personal life." The two worlds do collide, of course, not least because her boyfriend is German swimmer Oliver Wenzel, 25, who played a key role in helping Steffen turn herself around and view her swimming through positive, not fearful, eyes.

As Marchalek put it: "When she had her head free she was able to motivate herself incredibly. The year's break, psychological training and her boyfriend have done her a lot of good."

An understatement as it turned out: Steffen broke the world record in the 100m free at the 2006 European Championships in Budapest, won thed 50m crown and helped the German freestyle quartets break the 4x100m and 4x200m world records. Of her 53.30sec world record over 100m freestyle, Orjan Madsen, Germany's new head coach at the time, said: "It was a sensational swim. She is an absolute super-talent and this is just the start of her career.

If the first 50m, at 25.84, was slower than Inge de Bruijn's split on the way to the then 53.77 world record in 2000, the second 50 was a display of control and assertiveness. Two years on in Beijing, she would take the 100m by turning in 7th - almost a second down on the Australian with whom she traded blows in the wake of Budapest: Libby Lenton, later Trickett - before rocketing through the ranks on the way to the gold medal.

The "D" word was raised the moment she stopped the clock in Budapest. The reactions of both Steffen and Madsen went along way to calming what could have been an unworthy storm. "We (Germany) have a bad history of doping. The only solution is to declare why our swimmers are as fast as they are. That's just the way it is. We have to check blood, we have to make ourselves available, and will do at the start and end of each altitude camp." said Madsen, announcing plans for a blood-passport system that has potential for adoption on the international stage. That system has since been threatened by lack of funding, though the DSV, the German federation, remains, in word at least, comitted to supporting Madsen's plan.

For her part, Steffen has been working with Wilhelm Schanzer, a leading drugs researcher. "I want to create my own anti-doping file in which I publish my tests," explained Steffen. "The implications (in questions put to her in Budapest) hurt me."

Not too much to get in the way of double gold in Beijing. Celebrations involved a fair few hugs with Franziska van Almsick, former queen of German swimming. The two swimmers are different in many respects but the thing they have in common is the feet-on-the-ground principals instilled in them as East German children of working-class parents. Many a tale has been told of Van Almsick's aloofness yet meet her one-on-one and she is as delightful as she is down-to-earth.

The same could be said of Steffen. She lives in a 12m sq student bedsit in Berlin and receives 400 euros or so a month support from her club. Not be wasted on a flash new car, rather they will go to help her parents out. Like a fifth of Germans in the former east, Steffen's mother, Ingrid, a former shop assistant now 52, and father, Edgar Hutschenreiter, a former electrician now 57, are both unemployed. Such circumstance can breed hunger in those who have a mind to channel disadvantage and rise above it.

Raised in a high rise with brothers Sven, now 29 and a papermaker, and Maik, 19 and a chemical engineer, Steffen holds family dear. Her siblings' names are engraved on the ring they gave her, one she wears with pride. "She's very down to earth and modest. Success will not go to her head," said coach Marchalek.

Asked in 2006 if she could imagine one day writing the autobiography of her fairytale, she replied: "No, I'd just like to continue my life as it is now. I don't worry about money. I've agreed with my body that I'll train intensively for another two years and then we'll see. I'm satisfied with my whole life right now. I've found an inner quiet."

It proved to be the calm before the Beijing storm.