LONDON -- At 15 years old, Lithuanian breaststroker Ruta Meilutyte had simple goals for the 2012 Olympics. Get to London. Do your best. Have fun. A gold medal was nothing but a far-off dream.
But after Sunday morning’s preliminary swim, that has all changed. The previously unknown Meilutyte, who entered the meet seeded 12th in the 100 breast, shocked nearly everyone in the London Aquatics Center with the fastest time of the morning, 1:05.56. It was the eighth-quickest time in history. The fastest in 2012. And nearly two seconds faster than her personal best and qualifying time.
Afterward, the emotion of the moment overcame her and she cried. The in-house announcer then said, “Welcome to the Olympics, Ruta.”
“I didn’t expect it at all,” she said later. “I am in shock. I am speechless.”
For a host country looking for another sentimental favorite to get behind, Meilutyte just might be it. She currently attends Plymouth College in Southwest England, where she trains.
Prior to Sunday’s preliminary swim, American Rebecca Soni was considered the favorite to defend her gold from Beijing in the event. Her preliminary time of 1:05.75 was the second-fastest of the morning. But afterward, the story was the 15-year-old unknown who had come from seemingly nowhere. As Soni prepared for her heat, she saw the time Meilutyte posted and was stunned.
“We kind of all gave each other a look like, ‘Oh s---, now we all have to actually push it in the morning,'" she said.
For Soni, it’s the second straight meet in which someone has come from seemingly out of nowhere to succeed. At the U.S. Olympic Trials it was Breeja Larson, whom Soni admitted she had never heard of before she qualified for London. And now it’s Meilutyte.
“It was great to see someone who swims faster than they thought they could and see that joy,” Soni said. “It rubs off on the rest of us, too. For me it inspires me to push a little bit harder.”
Larson’s time of 1:06.58 was the fourth fastest of the morning.
“I got all the jitters out,” she said afterward. “I feel good.”
The other big story of the morning was the mystery over who the Americans will send out for the men’s 4X100-meter freestyle relay on Sunday night. James Feigen, Matt Grevers, Ricky Berens and Jason Lezak swam the morning heat in the second-fastest time of 3:12.59, 0.3 seconds behind the team from Australia.
Tonight’s finals are likely to include the top two finishers from the 100-meter freestyle in Omaha, Cullen Jones and Nathan Adrian. The question is whether coach Gregg Troy will include Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte or perhaps Grevers, whose split of 47.54 seconds was the second fastest of any swimmer Sunday morning. Lochte dominated the final of the 400 IM on Saturday, with Phelps finishing fourth. Afterward, his coach, Bob Bowman, said he was disappointed with Phelps’ freestyle leg. Will that keep him off the relay? Grevers isn’t so sure.
“I don’t think I have any doubt that Michael would throw an incredibly fast split,” Grevers said. “Nathan and Cullen proved themselves at trials and Ryan, you saw him blow the 400 IM out of the water last night. That guy’s hot. And you’ve got to go with what’s hot. That’s a good hand right now. Ryan Lochte is a good hand.”