Lithuanian Olympic champion Rūta Meilutytė was welcomed home by a large crowd gathered at Vilnius Rotuse recently.
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Rūta Meilutytė won Lithuania’s first gold medal in swimming since independence and astounded not only Lithuania, but the whole world, with her fairy-tale performance.
The 15 year old Rūta has been steadily climbing the junior ranks in her sport, and said that she entered the Olympics only wanting to improve on her personal best performances, and left the rest to fate.
Well fate astounded us all as the youngest swimmer in the 100 metre breast-stroke final surprised her opponents in the heats, bamboozled them in the semis with the fastest qualifying time, and then blew them away in the final where she managed to hold off a fast finishing Rebecca Soni and find that little extra in the last couple of strokes to touch the wall first in an impressive 1:05.47.
Meilutytė swam faster in the heats, but as always, the final is about racing your opponents, and on this occasion she also had to overcome nerves as a technical hitch held up the start as all swimmers waited impatiently for the final to begin.
Pessimism overcome most commentators as they speculated that the young Rūta would be most disadvantaged by the hold-up, but as soon as the race began it was obvious her sole focus was the task at hand, and she went out in her customary fast start.
In earlier races Rūta had established a strong lead in the first 50 and built on it in the home 50, taking her races in reasonable ease.
This time the cream of the world’s 100 metre breaststrokers were all clamouring for the same prize – an Olympic Gold Medal. This was serious.
Again Rūta was fast out in the final, but her margin at the first 50 was not as great as in earlier races. She came off the wall well, and continued powering forward, but 20 metres in it was obvious that Soni was not going to let her get away.
Soni kept at the heels of the Lithuanian teenager and was soon closing the margin and in the last 15 metres was clearly coming over the top of Meilutytė. Indeed most commentators agreed that within a few more metres Soni would have been clearly ahead.
Rūta Meilutytė however said she was aware of the fast-finishing Soni, and dug deep in the last 15 metres to find the extra effort that helped her hold off Soni and touch the wall first.
Even at the end she was not really sure of the win and had to wait an agonising few seconds, that must have seemed an eternity, until her gold medal was confirmed.
The rest is history. The quiet, demure and softly spoken teenager claimed Lithuania’s first gold medal of the London Olympics and the first in swimming for contemporary Lithuania.
Her surprise and delight was obvious and she dealt with the media attention with an endearing mix of shyness and self-assuredness that belied her 15 short years.
The appeal of the girl and wonder of her exploits can be written about at will, but you need no better indication than the sheer number of people who gathered to greet her on return to Vilnius on the evening of Wednesday 8 August, as thousands of Lithuanians cheered her and she was welcomed by President Grybauskaitė during a live television coverage of the event.
The welcome was hosted by Jonas Radzevičius, and included performers Berta Timinskaitė, Neda Malunavičiūtė, Rūta Ščiogolevaitė, Julija, Erica Jennings and Jurgis Didžiulis and Marijonos Mikutavičius before culminating in a fireworks display.
As well as the performances she was surprised by her classmates who met with her onstage as well as family members who were with her throughout the night.
Rūta then held a press conference before heading home to Kaunas with friends and family, where she said she will holiday for three to four weeks before returning to school and training in the UK where she has a swimming scholarship.
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