In the early years of her career, Germany’s Britta Steffen showed signs of enormous potential. In 1999 she won six titles at the European junior championships, and, at the age of 16, won a bronze medal as a member of Germany's 4 x 200 metres freestyle relay team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
But somewhere it all went wrong and by the time of the 2004 Athens Olympics her individual times were not outstanding, and, although a member of the German team, she was only asked to swim in the preliminary heats of the 4 x 100 metres freestyle relay. Following the Olympics, she even took a year off from competitive swimming to concentrate on her studies.
It all changed for Steffen in 2006 at the European Championships in Budapest. She won four gold medals - in the 50 metres and 100 metres individual freestyle, the 4 x 100 metres freestyle relay and the 4 x 200 metres freestyle relay - and created new world records in the two relays and the 100 metres freestyle, swimming’s blue riband event. In that race she clocked 53.30 secs, upstaging the previous record of 53.42 secs set by Libby Lenton of Australia. Steffen could scarcely believe it when she saw her time on the electronic scoreboard, looking uncertain whether to laugh or cry before she pulled off her cap and gave a huge smile.
The 22-year-old engineering student from Schwedt also recorded the fastest relay split of all-time, previously held by Lenton, when she inspired Germany to snatch the world record in the 4 x 100 metres freestyle relay from the Australian squad, which won the 2004 Olympic gold.