Giant on the move
“Go ahead – ask me anything you want,” said German swimmer Britta Steffen at the start of a recent interview in Berlin. I had spent the last two hours watching her swim further (and three times faster) than I had swum in the last two months and was planning to ask her, among other things, a few questions about the doping innuendos that hit her in mid 2006 right after she broke the world record in the 100 metres freestyle. But I didn’t expect Steffen, who is regularly tested and never suspected of any wrongdoing, to so openly tackle the issue.
“Really, go ahead and ask,” she said again. So I jumped right in without even any warmup and started asking about those who have doubts on her world record time at the European championships in Budapest (53.30) in 2006 that was nearly a full second faster than her previous best (and lowered Australia’s Libby Lenton’s record of 53.42). What she would say those find such steep improvements hard to believe. “I’d be sceptical too,” she said. “I can totally understand that. If it weren’t me, I’d also have doubts. But the coaches took the pressure off my shoulder by pointing out that a Libby Lenton and other world record holders had also made improvements of a full-second before getting their world records.”
Steffen was bullied a bit by the media in Australia ahead of the 2007 world championships even though Australia’s head coach Alan Thompson had defended her and the German women’s team . But she realises that the doping regime of Communist East Germany cast long shadows. “The problem for me that I had taken off a half year two years earlier and on top of that I’m a ‘German’ and from the ‘east’ and so everyone assumed the worst,” said Steffen, who nevertheless voluntarily provides samples of her blood and urine to be frozen for future testing when new methods might be available.
She also knows timing played a role. In the summer of 2006 doping scandals were in the headlines after the Tour de France was ravaged. The insinuations — there were never any allegations — over her world record pained her. ”Sure it hurt my feelings,” Steffen said. “It seemed so unfair. There’s nothing you can do but live with the doubters. The people who know me and trust me know I’m clean.”
Jonathon Newton, a Reuters account manager in Australia, has been a competitive swimmer for over 20 years. Last weekend, clad in one of Speedo’s newly released LZR racing suits that take at least 15 minutes to peel on, he came third in the 50 metre freestyle at the Australian Swimming Championships, but his time of 22.15 seconds was 0.13 seconds short of taking him to the Beijing Olympics. Newton, 27, talks about getting into his suit, how it affects his swimming and the debate around swimwear that boasts to improve times by up to 3 percent.
“You really need to wear socks or plastic bags over your feet to get the suit on as there is a kind of sticky rubber on the inside leg. If you’re even slightly wet it is impossible. They are not comfortable but you get used it. You don’t put the suit on until just before you go to the marshalling area and take it off straight after the race so it is on for maybe 30 minutes. You need two people to help with the zip on the back. They pack up very small — about the size of a bag of sugar — and people can’t believe you will fit into the suit when they see it packed.