Monday, 30 July 2012

Ruta Meilutyte: The Olympics Anna Paquin

By Shane Thomas

Have you ever seen the actor Anna Paquin's speech when she won an Oscar for her performance in the film, The Piano? Before Paquin was better known for starring in the X-Men films and True Blood, and spent far too much of her career getting her ti... sorry, I'll save my True Blood rant for another day.

Where was I? Ah, yes, The Piano. Paquin wowed movie-goers and became the second-youngest winner of an Oscar in the history of the Academy Awards. As she made her way up to the podium, and was presented with her statuette from the legendary Gene Hackman, she looked out to the crowd, containing some of the most famous actors in the world. What would Paquin say?

Initially, nothing. She took a deep breath. And then another. And then another. Her eyes, wide. Her mouth, fixed into a permanently shocked smile. It was a rum incongruity that someone who looked so at home playing pretend in a 116 minute movie, seemed unable to handle being herself for a few seconds - albeit with the world watching. After all, surely acting alongside Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel is the difficult part of the job? So what does this all have to do with the Olympics?

Well, the Oscars are to film what the Olympics are to sport - and more pertinently, swimming. So far the Aquatic Centre has been the setting for a new generation of stars for the sport, such as Ye Shinwen and Missy Franklin, but at this early stage of the Games, no star has shone brighter than the Lithuanian, Ruta Meilutyte.

Meilutyte's (pronounced May-Loo-Tee-Tay) story is one that is tailor-made for the Olympics. From Lithuania, she has been coached by the Briton, John Rudd, who spotted Meilutyte's luminescent talent. But uprooting her from her home country, and relocating her to Plymouth to train was a risky strategy, especially for one so young.

Coming into the Olympics, Meilutyte was a complete unknown. This soon changed after a searing display in the semi-finals of the 100 metre breaststroke. She stunned the field by winning the race, and breaking the European record to boot.

However, no medals are awarded at the semi-final stage. The preliminaries are to keep the body ticking over, getting yourself in good shape for the final. That's when the champion performers come to the party. Could Ruta do it when it really mattered?

A few hours ago, we had the final. The nerves must have shuddered through the eight swimmers like earthquake tremors. So it hardly helped matters when a malfunction caused the starter's gun to go off prematurely. The American, Breeja Larson instinctively jumped into the pool, and had to be called back so the race could be re-started.

All the pre-race focus. Getting "in the zone". Every ounce of mental preparation out of the window due to a piece of shoddy equipment. One could be forgiven for allowing that to derail their race, especially someone as green as Meilutyte. But in a display of effulgent brilliance, she set off like a train. However, at the turn, her lead was being eroded by the world champion at this event, and pre-race favourite, Rebecca Soni.

Yet again, young Meilutyte came under pressure. Her mentality being put under strain as well as her technique. But both held firm. Meilutyte touched first, reaching the pinnacle of her sport, at an age where she's still too young to do many of the things one would associate with a teenager.

She may have made the tough part of the job look easy, but in her post-race interview, she had an attack of "the Paquins". When asked how she felt, Meilutyte was unable to string three words together. Her eyes darted around nervously, she stumbled over her speech, before hurriedly thanking her parents in Lithuanian.

Had a mature adult exhibited this behavior, one may have branded them as stand-offish, or downright rude. But it was quite apparent that - like Paquin 18 years ago - this was a young girl, unable to reconcile her astonishing achievement. Meilutyte looked as if she expected someone to tell her that there'd been a mistake, before taking the gold medal back.

The Olympics has a fine history of showcasing girls with a preternatural talent, which doesn't seem to correlate with their tender years; the fact that Meilutyte can arguably be placed alongside the likes of Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut speaks volumes.

There will surely be many great stories to come from these Olympics, and many displays that will take the breath away. But if the Games were to end today, we've already had a memory to cherish. Ruta Meilutyte, take a bow.

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  1. Ruta's second name should be pronounced as May-Loo-Tee-Tay

    1. In which case I sincerely apologise. The BBC's commentary & Internet research I did had me mistaken. The error will be corrected.