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Published: 31 july 2012 08:01

Swimmer Rūta Meilutytė wins first Olympic gold for Lithuania

Rūta Meilutytė
AFP/„Scanpix“ nuotr. / Rūta Meilutytė

Lithuanian teenager Rūta Meilutytė survived the ultimate test of nerves to win the women's 100 meters breaststroke gold medal at the London Olympics on Monday.

The 15-year-old not only became the first swimmer from Lithuania to win an Olympic medal she did it in under extraordinary circumstances.

The start, a time when swimmers are already battling their nerves, was delayed by a technical malfunction that saw the starter's gun go off before he had called "on your marks". American Breeja Larson dived into the pool on the gun but was able to race because of the malfunction.

The eight finalists sat down while the problem was fixed and an unfazed Meilutytė still got off the blocks fastest and led at the turn but then had to survive a fierce challenge from American Rebecca Soni, the reigning world champion in the event.

The more experienced Soni drew level in the final few strokes but Meilutytė kept her cool and got her hands on the wall first in one minute, 05.47 seconds.

Soni was second in 1:05.55 while Japan's Satomi Suzuki finished third in 1:06.46.

Australia's Leisel Jones, the defending Olympic champion who won a silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Games when she was 15, finished fifth overall in her fourth and final appearance at the Games.

Gave up basketball due to trauma

Rūta was born in Kaunas in 1997. "I was doing basketball for four years but then I broke my leg and had to give it up. I tried many things afterwards. Track and field athletics, dancing… But swimming was always my number one sport. I took it up for simple reasons - to learn how to swim, to not be afraid of water, to correct my posture. And I stayed on," Rūta says.

Her first coach was Giedrius Martinionis who saw her potential instantly. "One day she'll become the country's record-holder," the coach promised to the 5-year-old's father Saulius Meilutis. Today, Meilutytė holds five Lithuanian records.

Martinionis can still recall Rūta's first time in the pool. "She was the first kid who started drowning," says the coach about Meilutytė's debut in the swimming pool.

Family of emigrants

However, it wasn't Martinionis who accompanied the swimmer to London. For several years now, Meilutytė has been training in Plymouth, England. She is coached by Jonathan Rudd.

Rūta lost her mother in 2001 in a car accident. When her two elder brothers grew up and left home, her father moved to England and brought Meilutytė with him a few years later. In Plymouth, under the guidance of coach Rudd, the swimmer began her fast ascent towards becoming a champion.

Teenager's amusements

"I soon got used to the training load in England, even though it was much more intense, it was hard at first. But everything is great now. It was perhaps more difficult to get used to school. I had to change schools. What happened? I don't know, I didn't like it. The kids there were odd," Rūta recalls.

"It is true that when you're training, you must give up a lot of fun things and pleasures typical of a teenage life. But that doesn't mean I don't have fun at all. Sportspeople who love what they do have fun too, only in different ways," says Rūta, who has just celebrated her 15th birthday.

As to her future plans, Meilutytė is not giving up on swimming and would like to study kinesitherapy. "I'm not a geek, but I'd love to have an interesting profession," she says.

Cheers from the president

After Meilutytė qualified for the finals, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who initially planned to leave London on Sunday, extended her visit in order to watch the race.

"This is the first medal for Lithuanian athletes and it was you, the youngest member of the Lithuanian Olympic team, who won it. The entire country held their breath watching your performance in the Games from the first moment. You've surprised the world with your results and, at 15, you entered the Olympic history. […] You are a great hope for Lithuania," the President greeted Meilutytė after her victory.

In addition to the President's praise, Meilutytė will receive a national prize of 400 thousand litas (116 thousand euros).

VIDEO: Ruta Meilutyte Wins Gold Medal in Women's 100 Breaststroke (2012 London Olympics)

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