Rūta Meilutytė (19 March, 1997) is a Lithuanian breaststroke, freestyle, and IM swimmer who burst on to the international scene in 2012 with her stunning performances at the London Olympics.
Rūta was born in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, and as a child she was hyperactive and physically very strong. She started swimming at the age of seven, and after a year’s hiatus to play basketball, returned to the pool a few months before her 11th birthday.
It wasn’t long before she started posting results. At the Italian Brescia Swimming Club’s Luciana Memorial in 2008, she won a bronze medal in 100m freestyle and came fourth in 100m breaststroke, and in 2009 she broke three Lithuanian under 13 records (SC), two of which (200m free, 100m IM) are still standing. A year later she won the best female swimmer award while competing in the youngest age group at the Anyksciai International Sprint Festival, and at the International Children's Games in Manama, Kingdom of Bahrain, she won two golds (in 50m and 100m breaststroke), a silver (50m free) and a bronze (400m medley relay).
In 2010 she also moved with her father and two older brothers to Plymouth, England, where she teamed up with current coach Jon Rudd at the Plymouth Leander Swimming programme. In July of the same year, at the British Gas ASA National Age Group Championships she won a gold medal in 100m breaststroke, silver in 100m free, and bronze in 200m IM, swimming faster than the the British National 100m breaststroke Age Group record as well as the Lithuanian senior record held by the renowned Lina Kaciusyte since 1978.
These phenomenal results were just the beginning, and in January 2011 at Euro-Meet in Luxembourg she won an incredible seven gold medals, five in her age group and two in the open class (50m and 100m breaststroke). Later in the year at the European Youth Summer Olympic Festival in Trabzon, Turkey, she won the 100m breaststroke gold, the 50m freestyle silver, and the 100m freestyle bronze, breaking her own Lithuanian records in every swim.
Her winning streak continued into 2012 when she won 50m and 100m breaststroke golds at both the Nancy Long Course Invitational (January) and Mare Nostrum in Monaco (June), while also winning 100m breast at the British Gas Swimming Championships in March. During her preparations for the Olympics – as the youngest Olympian in Lithuanian history – she once again broke the national 100m freestyle record, set a new mark at the 200m distance, and also broke the 50m breaststroke national record just six weeks before the Games.
She went on to compete in both the 50m and 100m freestyle events in London, but never progressed beyond the heats, although she set a new national record in the sprint. However, it was her efforts in the 100m breaststroke that made the swimming world sit up and take notice. Meilutyte swam the fastest times in both the heats and semi-finals, taking nearly two seconds off her personal best, and breaking the European record with a time of 1:05.21 in the semi-final. In the final, she led from the front, but had to hold off a strong challenge from Arena swimmer Rebecca Soni to win the gold. It was Lithuania’s first Olympic medal in the pool.
Meilutyte’s Olympic feats weren’t the last of her major medals for the year, as she went on to win both the 50m and 100m breaststroke events at the FINA/Arena Swimming World Cup in Stockholm, and put in another dominating performance at December’s World SC Championships in Istanbul. In the 50m breaststroke efforts, she broke the Lithuanian, Championship, and European records in the heats, semi-finals, and final, and then did the same in the 100m breaststroke final for her second gold medal of the Championships. She also picked up a silver medal in the 100m IM.
“A little fish with a ram’s character”. That’s how father Saulius describes Rūta, having been born prematurely under the sign of Pisces rather than in April as an Aries. Not far off the mark at all when one considers the symbolism of the determination that goes with her prowess in the water.
Rūta’s relationship with water started in Lithuania’s second-largest city, Kaunas, as a seven-year-old, when her grandmother and father started her swimming in order to be water safe, and also at the suggestion of doctors to address her back problems. Her primary caregiver in those days was Aldona, Saulius’ mother, who took over the rearing of his children – Rūta and her older brothers Mindaugas and Margiris – after he lost his wife Ingrida in an accident. Because work in Lithuania was scarce, Saulius worked abroad, first in the US, and subsequently (since 2008) in the UK.
While he was gone, Rūta grew into a strong, agile child back in Kaunas, climbing trees, cutting firewood, preparing garden beds, and raking leaves. As she grew and became more “spirited”, Saulius decided to bring her over to Plymouth in 2010 to be close to him, and it’s there that she teamed up with her coach Jon Rudd.
Two years later Rūta won the Olympic 100m Breaststroke title on 30 July, 2012 in London, at just 15 years, 4 months and 11 days old. Watching in the crowd that day was her grandmother – Saulius had given her his ticket, and to be there she had taken the first plane flight of her life. Also in the crowd was Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, while back at home everyone “was going wild” – according to coach Rudd, brother Margiris was in the thick of it at a bar where they named a cocktail ‘The Ruta’. Needless to say, he spent the night drinking free Rutas.
Life hasn’t changed much for her since the Olympics – she still gets up at 4:50am for her early-morning training session, before heading off to school. Rūta won a scholarship at Plymouth College, a private school that specialises in educating and training elite athletes, among them British diver Tom Daley. Like any teenage school girl, she has her likes and dislikes, hating maths and physics, and enjoying biology and PE. Dad Saulius still prepares her breakfast of cereal, her pre-afternoon training meal of carbohydrates (normally pasta), and her post-training high protein meal such as meat or fish with vegetables. Occasionally he treats her to her favourite herring or smoked bacon with onions, but, as he says, “I cannot feed her like that often, for such food is not good for a sportsperson.” There is one thing, however, that will always appear somewhere on her menu – chocolate, something she can’t live without (along with her iPod).
Rūta’s first year or so in England was difficult – aside from having to adapt to a new language and culture, training was a lot harder as well, with more developed infrastructure and programmes. But over time it’s started to feel almost like home, although not completely. She still misses Lithuania, and looks forward to the times she goes back, to relax on the beaches, and spend time with family and friends. It is, after all, where she spent her earliest formative years, started developing her character, and it runs deep in her blood.
It’s also back in Lithuania that her determination and winning mentality developed along with her physical strength. It says something about the environment of her upbringing, and the care and nurturing of grandmother Aldona and father Saulius, that the young Olympic champion knows what it takes to get to the top. And when she shares her swimming philosophy – “the person who works hardest wins” – one has to remind oneself that she’s only 16 years old.