LITHUANIAN Ruta Meilutyte survived the ultimate test of nerves to win the women’s 100 metres breaststroke gold medal at the age of 15 last night.
• Hannah Miley posted the 10th fastest time of two minutes 12.27 seconds in 200 metres individual medley
• Caitlin McClatchey won her heat in 1:58.03 in the sprint relay
• Disappointment for Sophie Allen and Joe Roebuck as they fail to qualify with Rebecca Turner off the pace
She not only became the first swimmer from her country to win an Olympic medal she did it in under extraordinary circumstances. The start was delayed by a technical malfunction that saw the starter’s gun go off before he had called “on your marks”.
American Breeja Larson dived into the pool on the gun but was able to race because of the malfunction.
The eight finalists sat down while the problem was fixed and an unfazed Meilutyte still got off the blocks fastest and led at the turn but then had to survive a fierce challenge from American Rebecca Soni, the reigning world champion in the event. The more experienced Soni drew level in the final few strokes but Meilutyte kept her cool and got her hands on the wall first in one minute, 05.47 seconds.
“I cannot believe it,” an emotional Meilutyte told the BBC’s Sharron Davies, as she struggled to describe the enormity of her achievement. “It’s too much for me.” Looking at the camera and speaking in Lithuanian, she told her father in Plymouth: “Thank-you. I love you.”
Meilutyte has been destined for the top step of the podium since displaying early signs of her potential, her proud coaches have said. Although she won last night under the Lithuanian flag, the country where she grew up, she is also a hero in Britain where she has made a new home. Meilutyte and her father arrived in England three years ago to allow the swimming prodigy to train for the Olympics. She is a student at Plymouth College in Devon, where her fellow pupils include British diving hopeful Tom Daley.
Despite her being only 15, Plymouth College’s coaches – including director of swimming Jon Rudd – had long suspected the Lithuanian to be capable of achieving Olympic success. Assistant headteacher Sarah Dunn said: “We are almost in tears, it was such an achievement. We knew she had great potential when she arrived here in Plymouth three years ago. Not only is she a fantastic athlete, but she is also a great scholar.
“She has always demonstrated superb talent and the hunger and desire to succeed. We had every confidence in her. To achieve what she has at such a young age is incredible. She is a real credit and we are so proud of her.”
Cailtin McClatchey only qualified at the last minute to represent Team GB in the 200m freestyle, so little or nothing was expected of her when it came to the event itself. The same could be said of her fellow Scot Robbie Renwick in the men’s equivalent after he failed to go through from the heats of the 400m at the weekend. But last night both competitors rose to the occasion, with McClatchey qualifying sixth fastest for tonight’s final, and Renwick coming sixth in his final. Their compatriot Hannah Miley also bounced back from the relative disappointment of coming fifth in the 400 individual medley, qualifying for the 200 individual medley after finishing second in her semi-final.
The 26-year-old McClatchey won her morning heat in 1min 58.03 – the equal seventh fastest time. Then in the evening, swimming in the second semi-final along with Italy’s Federica Pellegrini and Missy Franklin of the USA, she speeded up to 1:57.33, coming second behind the Italian to make it safely through.
It was an expertly timed race from McClatchey, who was roared home by a partisan crowd in Olympic Park’s Aquatic Centre. Third at the first turn and second at the halfway stage, she then had that crowd in raptures as she went into the final turn in the lead. The last 50m were all about holding on, and, while Pellegrini finished strongest to touch the end wall in 1:56.67, McClatchey was able to hold off the challenge of several other competitors to claim that place in the top eight.
“I’m really pleased with that,” she said. “I knew I had to go out strong, because those girls are really tough on the front end, so I went out hard and I’m really pleased to have made the final. I didn’t expect it, really, because I knew it was going to be such a tough event so I’m really, really overwhelmed.
“I’m just going to go in there and race tough, because all bets are off when it comes to Olympic finals. No-one really cares about the times, it’s all about the places. I’m just going to go in and try and race hard and use the crowd as I did in the semi and try to press on from this performance.”
While British spectators are the biggest faction in the crowd, other nationalities are equally vociferous – and the whole atmosphere is being praised by swimmers from other countries, including those who have travelled the world and are accustomed to big meetings.
“The crowd was fantastic,” McClatchey continued. “I was speaking to the Australian swimmer Kylie Palmer and she was like: “Wow – did you hear the crowd during the last length?’ I said: ‘Yes, they were so supportive the whole way down.’ It makes it completely worthwhile.”
McClatchey sometimes wears earphones in order to cut down on external distractions, but last night there was no way she wanted to block out any noise. “Hearing the crowd really lifted me,” she added.
Renwick had a similar response after his sixth place behind his French friend and rival Yannick Agnel. “It definitely made me smile hearing everyone cheering ‘Go Robbie’,” he said. “It was a fantastic feeling. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen to me again. To swim in front of your home crowd – you can’t ask much more than that, and representing your own country is a great honour.”
In fact, it could well happen to Renwick again, as he has no intention of quitting any time soon, so is expected to be a key member of the Scottish team at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where he will be defending the 200m title he won in Delhi two years ago.
“I live and train in Glasgow, so the next two years will be really exciting,” he said.
“But at the moment it’s all about the Olympics. Once this is finished my focus will be set on Glasgow in two years’ time. I’m still a spring chicken. I’m 24 years old. so there are a couple more years left in me.
“At the start of competition I really had my sights on the 400 final, and to make the 200 was a great feeling and a bit of a surprise for me. I did a good job in the 200 to come away with sxith place. I came in ranked 15, so at the end of the day it’s a good result for me.”
Miley, meanwhile, was very pleased with her semi-final swim. “I’m really, really happy with how that went,” she said. “At least I know I’ve swum the fastest swim I could possibly have done. It’s a huge step up from what I did in Beijing [at the last Olympics] and I can’t ask more than that.”
“The aim is to always try and go faster in the finals,” she continued after a race in which she swam nearly a second faster than in the morning heats.
“I did that in the 400, I’ve done that here, and the next target is to hopefully go faster again.
“You tend to find that the finals are a bit slower, but we shall see. That’s the name of the game in swimming, isn’t it? It’s all strategy and tactics, and who can recover and swim fastest in the day.”
In the men’s 100m backstroke, McClatchey’s boyfriend Liam Tancock came fifth after qualifying third fastest from the semis.
Matt Grevers of the USA took gold ahead of his team-mate Nick Thoman and Japan’s Ryosuke Irie.
After competing in McClatchey’s race, Franklin was soon back in action, winning the women’s 100m backstroke in 58.33sec ahead of Emily Seebohm of Australia and Aya Terakawa of Japan. Britain’s Gemma Spofforth was fifth.