Plymouth schoolgirl wins swimming gold… but it's for Lithuania
08:36 GMT, 31 July 2012
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After losing his wife and the mother of his three children, Saulius Meilutis decided to move his family from Lithuania to England for a better life.
He had two sons, both now at university, and a young daughter with a special gift for swimming.
That daughter is 15-year-old Ruta Meilutyte, and here in London she is taking the Olympics by storm. On Monday she set a new European record for the 100 metres breaststroke, swimming the fastest time in the world this year to secure her place in the final. /07/30/article-2181300-144C330C000005DC-453_634x395.jpg” width=”634″ height=”395″ alt=”Golden girl: Lithuania's Ruta Meilutyte celebrates winning the women's 100m breaststroke ” class=”blkBorder” />
Golden girl: Lithuania's Ruta Meilutyte celebrates winning the women's 100m breaststroke
But in her semi-final she was half a second quicker than Soni, the pre-Games favourite for gold and the Olympic champion over 200m four years ago, with a time of 1:05.21. Last night she was a fraction slower, touching in 1:05.47sec before dissolving in tears at the medal ceremony.
Prominent members of the American media were among the first to raise an eyebrow and draw comparisons with the 16-year-old Chinese swimming sensation, Ye Shiwen.
Even her English coach expressed his surprise a few hours before last night’s final.
John Rudd, the director of swimming at Plymouth College and the head coach at Plymouth Leander swimming club, told Sportsmail yesterday he expected her to swim 1:06. ‘When she swam 1:05 in the heat yesterday, I thought, “OK, we may have to re-evaluate what we are looking to achieve here”,’ he said.
Medal of honour: Meilutyte holds her gold medal
‘It has no effect on Ruta. She didn’t know she had set a European record. She is just treating this like the Devon Championships. But she’s a major talent and hugely focused and professional for her age.’
She arrived in England with her family three years ago and was immediately enrolled at Plymouth College — the same school as British diving star Tom Daley.
Her father earns a modest salary as a carer, with her school fees covered by a sports scholarship from the school and a grant from the Lithuanian Olympic Federation.
Rudd is here in London as an official member of the Lithuanian coaching staff, so that he can remain at the side of his outstanding young athlete.
Plymouth College Olympians: Tom Daley with Ruta Meilutyte (right)
He is quick to dismiss talk of her performances being down to anything other than hard graft and ability. ‘Ruta has grown up in the last year,’ he said. ‘The physical change between 14 and 15 has, like with lots of kids, been significant. She’s filled out a lot since she won the Youth Olympics.
‘Hey look, there are some people about who don’t like getting beaten. Everyone has their good days and bad days, and if the Americans are having a bad day, I’m afraid that is hard luck.’
Rudd tells the story of an immensely gifted 15-year-old who simply lives for swimming and whose improvement is on a curve of improvement regarded as acceptable in coaching circles. Meilutyte is not obliterating world records and swimming faster than the men.
‘I have four Olympians in my group but Ruta has actually raised the bar in terms of professionalism,’ said Rudd. ‘Swimming is the most important thing in her life, and she doesn’t have that British trait of not being prepared to put the work in for what she wants.
Happy family: Meilutyte with her father, grandmother and two brothers
‘She has a natural gift, but she is psychologically as well as physically strong. She is not fazed by any of this at all. She has a process mind. It’s like “sleep, eat, train, study”. She has friends but she doesn’t touch alcohol and she is the one who will be home by 10 o’clock.’
According to reports in Lithuania, her mother was killed when she was hit by a car when Ruta was just four years old.
‘Ruta cherishes every day of her life,’ said Rudd. ‘Her father has brought her up with the help of her grandmother, who is here after getting on a plane for the first time in her life.
‘They are humble people. There is no silver spoon in Ruta’s mouth. She has a fantastic sense of humour but she appreciates what she has and she works hard for what she achieves.’
Last night that hard work most certainly paid off. After a rival false-started, Meilutyte led from the start, turning in first place and holding off a late surge from Soni.
It was so close she had to check the scoreboard to see if she had won, and her face was a picture of stunned amazement when the one appeared alongside her name.
Even after Daley’s failure yesterday, Plymouth College still had an Olympic gold medal to cherish.