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Meilutyte still revels in earnest toil after the London gold rush

March 3, 2013
Ruta Meilutyte says she took great pleasure in returning to action in the short course world championships in Istanbul in December.

Ruta Meilutyte says she took great pleasure in returning to action in the short course world championships in Istanbul in December.

It has been eight months since Ruta Meilutyte won her Olympic gold in the 100m breaststroke. The 15-year-old Lithuanian’s life, so the story goes, should be oh-so-different now, but truth is, she says, that nothing much has changed. She still wakes at 4.50am, ready for her two-hour early morning training sessions. She still goes to school five days a week. She still hates maths and physics. Still likes biology and PE. And after she is done with all that, she still goes back to the pool for two more hours of training in the afternoon. It all sounds a little thankless, but there are one or two little perks. “I suppose,” she says with a giggle, “my teachers are a little more likely to let me off when I’m naughty now.”

Meilutyte’s schoolmates at Plymouth college have taken her success in their stride. But then Tom Daley studies there, too, so they’re used to having stars around. Unlike Daley, nobody was expecting much of Meilutyte before the Games began. She was, after all, up against two of the great female swimmers of her era, Australia‘s Leisel Jones and the USA‘s Rebecca Soni, who had 11 Olympic medals and 14 world championship titles between them. “It was great just to be in the same race as them.” Her plan before the Games had been to qualify for the final. She would have been happy with that. Winning gold was so shocking it shook her. Before the race she didn’t suffer from nerves at all. After it she had a splitting headache.

“I was just expecting for me to swim my best time and I thought maybe that would make the final. I would have been happy with that, if I’d come eighth. So the medal really wasn’t what I was expecting. I surprised myself.” She spent the rest of that evening walking around, “trying to put things together in my head”. That night, scarcely believing what she had done, she slept with her medal in her pyjama pocket.

The first thing the British press wanted to know was whether Meilutyte would consider switching nationalities. There was, after all, a dearth of British success to write about. Her family had moved to Plymouth in 2010, when her father Saulius was looking for work. Since then she has been training under the British coach John Rudd at Plymouth Leander. She gave the idea short shrift. “I am very proud to be Lithuanian. I have lived there pretty much all my life, my whole family is from there so I don’t see why I should change my nationality.” She still gets homesick, something Saulius tries to treat with his home cooking, herrings, or smoked bacon.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, were wondering why she was not being subjected to the kind of accusations and innuendo that dogged the 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, after her own medal-winning performances at the Olympics. The answer, according to the US swimming coach John Leonard, who voiced his doubts about Ye, was that “No one has seen anything from the Lithuanian girl that says this is a historic anomaly. She is just very good and very fast.” In short, Leonard had seen enough of her in youth championships to know how good she was, and didn’t think that her winning time was so fast that it forced him to suspend his belief that she was racing clean.

Meilutyte prefers to stay out of all that. She believes that the “person who works hardest wins”. The most enjoyable thing that has happened to her since the Games, she insists, was getting back into the pool at the world short course championships in Istanbul. There she set new European records in both the 50m and 100m breaststroke, and won a silver in the 100m individual medley for good measure. Breaststroke suits her now, she says, because “it is all about technique, not power and strength”. But she’s clearly capable of competing in other events too. At the British University Championships in Sheffield last month she knocked eight seconds off the Lithuanian national record in the 200m IM. Her time of 2min 13.69sec would have been good enough to put her through to the Olympic semi-finals.

At the British Gas International in Leeds this week Meilutyte will swim in the 50m and 100m freestyle, the 50m and 100m breaststroke, the 100m backstroke and the 50m fly. “It is,” she says, “all part of a training period going into the world championships in Barcelona this July and August. If she carries on doing so well in the medley, she may swim in that event there too, as well as in the breaststroke. It’s a punishing schedule, but Meilutyte is happy to put up with it. “One thing I have realised since the Olympics is that hard work does pay off.”


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