Plymouth's Ruta Meilutyte wins shock gold (but it's not for Great Britain)
Fifteen-year-old Lithuanian from Tom Daley's alma mater stuns field in thrilling 100m breaststroke final
The Aquatics Centre
Tuesday 31 July 2012
There will, after all, be an Olympic gold medal to be celebrated by the staff and pupils of Plymouth College. Just hours after Tom Daley, the school's most famous graduate, failed to claim a medal, Ruta Meilutyte produced the third of three astonishing swims spread over the course of two days to claim gold for Lithuania at the age of 15.
On an unrewarding night for Britain – Liam Tancock, the sole medal hope, faded to finish fifth in the 100m backstroke – the home support were able to claim a victory of sorts in the 100m breaststroke through Meilutyte. She has already been asked about switching allegiance and firmly declined.
Like Daley before her, Meilutyte is on a scholarship at the private school and trains at the same facility in Plymouth, but unlike the poster boy of Team GB she did not arrive in London with any great expectation resting on her young shoulders. Her coach, Jon Rudd, said they would have settled for a personal best and a place in the final. He got both.
It is the second astonishing teenage victory to come in the first three nights in the pool, but in many ways hers is even more remarkable a performance than that of Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old Chinese who shattered the world record in the 400m individual medley and set a new Olympic mark in the 200m individual medley last night.
Meilutyte, the only female in the Lithuanian swim team, is ranked No 1 in the world in her age group but coming into the Olympics had managed to record only the 14th best time in the world this year. She has now recorded the fastest.
Whereas the raucous atmosphere inside the Aquatics Centre seems to have overawed some of the British swimmers, Meilutyte has thrived. From the moment she touched the water in her heat on Sunday morning she has dominated the event.
She began with a personal best and then in that night's semi-finals she broke the European record to advance to the final as quickest qualifier.
The rest of the swimming world was all too aware of her by the time she stepped out of the call room last night, clad in her dark green swim hat with the Lithuanian flag on one side. She appeared nerveless; she was unaffected by a false start from Breeja Larson, the American two lanes down, and also unbothered by the few minutes' wait that followed as the starting mechanism was reset.
Coming down the final 50m she opened up her lead and then held on as Rebecca Soni responded over the closing 15m. She touched 0.08sec quicker than the Beijing gold medallist, hauled herself out of the water and perched on the lane divider waving ecstatically to the crowd.
Meilutyte, whose mother died in a car accident when she was four, arrived in Britain two years ago. Her father had come to Plymouth to work as a carer, seen the facilities at the Leander club in the city and suggested she join him. "It will be good for your swimming," he informed her.
Her progress under Rudd, who has a stable of impressive young swimmers, has been meteoric. She was understandably taken aback. "It's too much for me," she said. "I really can't say anything. It was hard and difficult. At the moment I can't speak too much. But it means a lot to me and I'm so proud." Tears followed on the podium.
The best two British swims of the night came from women too. Caitlin McClatchey and Hannah Miley making finals in the 200m freestyle and the 200m individual medley relay respectively. McClatchey, at her third Olympics, produced her best swim since Beijing, setting the pace in a high-class field for the second semi-final. She led at the final turn, only for Federica Pellegrini to edge past but McClatchey held on to second to finish ahead of Missy Franklin.
The two men in action, Tancock and Robbie Renwick, were both in finals but neither troubled the podium. Renwick will be the more satisfied with his sixth place in the 200m freestyle final amid some stellar performers. It marked an improvement of two places on Beijing.
For Tancock, McClatchey's partner, it was one better than in 2008 but represents another frustrating failure to transform his dominance over 50m into the 100m. He swum his first world championships in 2005 and it is at world level where his success has come. The 50m backstroke, at which he excels as the world record holder, is not an Olympic event.
Gemma Spofforth completed the last individual race of her career with a creditable fifth in the 100m backstroke behind Missy Franklin. Spofforth will retire after the Games and plans to attempt to climb Everest. She will probably discover Meilutyte waiting for her.
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