Friday, July 10

Teen star carries Lithuania’s world gold hopes

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VILNIUS: Teen star Ruta Meilutyte is Lithuania’s golden hope at swimming’s world championships, which start Sunday, a year after bringing the first ever Olympic gold medal in the sport to the Baltic state.

The 16-year-old is a top favourite in the 50m and 100m breaststroke in Barcelona, which is an unusual position for the blonde schoolgirl, who was little known outside swimming circles just a year ago.

“I hope she will break her personal records”, Meilutyte’s coach Jon Rudd told AFP in a telephone interview.

“She is very athletic and much stronger since the Olympic Games. She is one year older and more a woman than a girl.”

Meilutyte, who goes to school in England, was voted best Lithuanian athlete of 2012 in her home country after winning gold in an exciting Olympic Games 100m breaststroke final last July.

The Lithuanian sent warning signals to opponents in June when she became the first woman to go under 30 seconds in the 50m breaststroke in a textile suit with a European record of 29.96 sec.

Last month, she also beat her own European record in the 100m breaststroke with one minute 05.20 sec.

“Meilutyte will be fishing for gold and records in Barcelona”, ran one headline in Lithuania’s top daily Lietuvos rytas, suggesting Meilutyte was ready to attack both of Jessica Hardy’s world records.

The 26-year-old Hardy of the United States set both world records of 29.80sec for the 50m and 1min 04.45sec for the 100m in August 2009.

Meilutyte — dubbed a ‘Lithuanian golden fish’ in her homeland — has already made swimming one of the top sports in Lithuania, a basketball-mad country of three million.

“The swimming lessons are overbooked”, Mindaugas Spokas, the general secretary of the Lithuanian swimming federation, told AFP.

“We in Lithuania love the winners and the leaders. Ruta is an athlete of international calibre, like the basketballer Arvydas Sabonis some years ago.”

Meilutyte’s career is an inspirational story.

She lost her mother at the age of four and moved to Plymouth in England with her father four years ago. Rudd said he understood her potential only after she started to swim breaststroke, saying Meilutyte “was a good swimmer, but nothing exceptional” in the freestyle.

“She is very focused, very serious about sport, very concentrated”, Rudd added.

Back home, her triumph provoked heated debates about emigration — a major topic in the Baltic state whose population has shrunk to its lowest level in decades after many have left to richer western European nations. — AFP