BERLIN (Reuters) - Britta Steffen almost seems pleased to see the people from doping control whenever they show up for their unannounced tests.
“The testing is the best thing that can happen to us,” the German swimmer told Reuters a few hours after being subjected to the unpleasant scrutiny involved in providing urine and blood samples for about the 12th time this year.
“It’s another chance to prove you’re clean. Unfortunately we can’t influence how often we’re tested. But if it were up to me I’d give a sample every day. I don’t have anything to hide.”
Steffen, 24, set a 100 meters world record and won four gold medals at the European championships in 2006, and is one of the favorites for the freestyle sprints at the Beijing Olympics.
After toiling anonymously for years in the shadow of team mate Franziska van Almsick, Steffen has succeeded her retired friend as a major figure in German advertising.
The fame and fortune have not changed Steffen’s outlook on life, however. She lives in the same one-room flat, costing 100 euros ($157) per month in rent, and survives on the 400 euro-a-month budget she has got by on since she was 16.
“I don’t know what I’d spend money on even if I had the time to spend it,” said Steffen, an industrial engineering student.
“I’ve got everything I need. The tickets to eat in the student cafeteria are three euros and I’m not really interested in going out or going shopping. So 400 euros is plenty.”
Steffen grew up in Schwedt, a once-thriving industrial town in East Germany. After German unification in 1990, Schwedt and the local economy fell upon hard times. Jobs at the big refinery disappeared, unemployment rose and the population shrank.
“I shared a 10-square-metre room with my two brothers,” said Steffen, who turned six a week after the Berlin Wall fell.
“So when I got my own room at the sports academy in Potsdam (age 12) it was pure luxury. Later, when things starting going better, I didn’t want to change what helped me get where I was.”
However, the tall swimmer with a friendly smile knew she had to change something in her life after a dismal Olympics in 2004.
In training she was one of Germany’s best, sometimes beating van Almsick, but she could never replicate those times in races and disappointed herself in Athens. So she quit for a while.
“I couldn’t stand swimming any more.” Steffen focused on her studies and food. She gained about eight kilos during her six months away from the sport.
“I’d look forward to lunch all morning,” she said. “And then I’d look forward to afternoon pies and coffee. And then dinner.”
She tried to get back in the team after three months off but her coach turned her away.
Sessions with psychologist Frederike Janofsky — who had helped van Almsick — proved enlightening.
“I didn’t have my head in the right place,” Steffen said. Janofsky soon discovered that Steffen was subconsciously afraid to beat her rivals in races.
“I would say I want to win. But after this test she asked: ‘Britta, why don’t you want to win?”‘ Steffen recalled. “I spontaneously blurted out: ‘Because someone else would lose!’ It sounded so absurd when that came out of me. I thought ‘eh?’
“I had got used to losing. Deep inside I hated to see others lose because they’d cry. She helped me erase my own mind’s objections to winning.”
Soon afterwards, she won the four golds at the 2006 European championships and broke the 100 meters freestyle world record (53.42) held by Libby Lenton (now Trickett) of Australia.
That raised eyebrows because her time (53.30 seconds) was nearly a second faster than her previous best (54.29). A new high-tech swimsuit and concentrated tapering to peak helped but Steffen acknowledges that her time had raised questions.
“I’d have had doubts too,” she said. “But the coaches pointed out Trickett and others had also made similar one-second improvements before setting records.” In 2004, Lenton swam a world record 53.66 after a previous personal best of 54.64.
Germany is burdened by memories of state-sponsored doping in Communist East Germany. Swim coach Orjan Madsen has worked hard to change that with a “transparent athletes” program, a strict anti-doping regime that includes full-scale body profiling.
“The problem is I took off a half a year, I’m a ‘German’ and from the ‘east’ — so everyone assumed the worst,” said Steffen who voluntarily provides samples to be frozen for future testing when new screening technology is developed.
“Sure it hurt my feelings,” she said. “It seemed so unfair.”
So even though the doping test officials can come at inopportune times, Steffen is indeed always glad to see them.
“I wish they’d come every morning so I could give them samples right after waking up. It’d be fine with me.”
Editing by Clare Fallon