Britta Steffen helps Germany win 1st mixed-gender swim relay

Not even the elite men's swimmers could catch Britta Steffen. In the sport's first top-level event featuring both sexes, Steffen held off two fast-charging male swimmers to anchor Germany to victory in a 4x50-meter mixed relay at the World Cup meet Tuesday in Dubai.

Female swimmer holds off men from Hungary, Ukraine

Britta Steffen, shwon in this 2006 file photo, helped her German teammates win the inaugural mixed-gender relay in Dubai on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

Britta Steffen found herself chased by two elite men's swimmers, holding on to a lead that was quickly shrinking.

In the sport's first top-level event featuring both genders, Steffen made sure it was ladies first.

The German held off held off two fast-charging male swimmers to anchor her country to victory in a mixed 4x50-metre medley relay at a short-course World Cup meet that provided exactly the kind of drama organizers had been hoping for.

"It's enjoyable and good team building," Steffen said. "It was also good to see what I can do under pressure against the men."

Germany gambled by putting Steffen — a world record-holder in the 50 freestyle — on the final leg, but it proved to be a successful tactic as her teammates gave her a lead of half a pool length. Hungary's Krisztian Takacs and Ukraine's Sergii Frolov took off after her and closed the gap, but Steffen made sure Germany won by a comfortable margin.

Germany finished in 1 minute, 43.21 seconds, 2.10 seconds faster than Hungary. Ukraine was a further .58 seconds back.

"I only wanted to give my best and I did," said Steffen, surrounded by her other three teammates before they received a gold medal on the first day of the two-day meeting. A mixed freestyle relay is scheduled for Wednesday.

The mixed relays, which feature two men and two women on each team, is being introduced at all eight World Cup meetings this season in what the sport's governing body FINA says is a bid to move the sport forward. If they prove successful, FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu said mixed relays could be part of the program at the short-course world championship in December.

Living up to expectations

The first one certainly lived up to expectations.

Unlike mixed relays in some other sports, like biathlon, the swim teams can choose to put the women on any of the four legs. That provides plenty of lead changes and adds an extra element of drama, as it makes it difficult to tell which team actually has the edge at any given point.

"It was really fun especially since some of the guys were swimming against all girls and some of the girls against guys," Hungary's Katinka Hosszu said. "I think it will be more interesting because you never know if a team has a guy and the other team has a girl and the guy can easily catch her. The race will change faster."

Sweden and Hungary — led by their male swimmers Simon Sjoedin and Olympic bronze medallist Laszlo Cseh — got off to the early lead, with Jenny Mensing swimming the first leg for Germany. But Germany's decision to hand the next two legs to Marco Koch and Helge Meeuw paid off as they opened up a huge lead with one leg left.

Still, the race was far from over.

With the poolside announcer urging on the swimmers chasing Steffen, the crowd stood and cheered. Steffen's lead quickly shrunk and Takacs appeared to have a chance at catching her.

But he just ran out of pool, and Steffen was embraced by a smiling Koch and Mensing as she jumped out of the water.

The addition of the mixed relay comes as the sport looks for ways to maintain the interest in swimming following a hugely successful 2012 London Olympics.

However, critics including European Swimming Federation President Paolo Barelli have said it goes too far in a bid to raise the sport's profile. Barelli has said there are already plenty of stars to fill the stands at top swimming competitions while some swimmers have wondered about the merits of adding another event to an already crowded meet schedule.

Germany's Meeuw said he enjoyed it though — even though it was hard for him to keep track of the leaders when even a lead of several meters could quickly disappear depending on whether a team had a woman or a man running a particular leg.

"You were confused in the middle of the race because it's shifting all around," Meeuw said. "You completely lose where you are but it was fun. It was the first time we did this and the results were good."