Stroke by stroke, they were coming after her. Britta Steffen of Germany had the lead, but it was quickly shrinking, with two elite male swimmers in pursuit.
But on this day — when top-level swimming featured its first male vs. female racing — Steffen made sure it was ladies first.
She held off the fast-charging men from Hungary and Ukraine to anchor her country to victory in a 4x50-meter medley relay at a short-course World Cup meet. She was embraced by smiling teammates as she jumped out of the pool.
"I only wanted to give my best and I did," she said.
Germany gambled by putting Steffen — a world record-holder in the 50 freestyle — on the final leg. But it proved a successful tactic when her teammates gave her a lead of half a pool length. Hungary's Krisztian Takacs and Ukraine's Sergii Frolov closed the gap, but Steffen guided Germany home by a comfortable margin.
Germany finished in 1 minute, 43.21 seconds — 2.10 seconds faster than Hungary. Ukraine was another 0.58 seconds back.
"It's enjoyable and good team building," said Steffen, surrounded by her three teammates before they received a gold medal. "It was also good to see what I can do under pressure against the men."
A mixed freestyle relay is scheduled for Wednesday, the last day of the two-day meet.
The mixed relays feature two men and two women on each team. The format is being introduced at all eight World Cup meets this season in what swimming's governing body says is an attempt to move the sport forward. If these relays prove successful, FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu said they could be part of the short-course world championship in December.
Unlike mixed relays in some other sports, like biathlon, the swim teams can put the women in any of the four legs. That provides plenty of lead changes and adds an extra element of drama, making it difficult to tell which team actually has the edge at any 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 male swimmers Simon Sjoedin and Olympic bronze medalist 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 a huge lead with one leg left.
Still, the race was far from over.
With the poolside announcer urging the swimmers chasing Steffen, the crowd stood and cheered. Steffen's lead quickly shrank. Takacs appeared to have a chance at catching her, but he just ran out of pool.
The addition of the mixed relay comes as swimming looks for ways to maintain interest in the sport following a hugely successful London Olympics.
Critics, however, contend this goes too far in a bid to raise the sport's profile. European Swimming Federation President Paolo Barelli has said there already are plenty of stars to fill the stands at top swimming competitions. Some swimmers wonder about the merits of adding another event to an already crowded meet schedule.
Germany's Meeuw said he enjoyed it even though it was hard for him to keep track of the leaders. A lead of several meters could quickly disappear depending on whether a team had a woman or a man going in 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."