Lithuanian swimmer Ruta Meilutyte’s reaction to taking shock gold in the 100m breaststroke was one of the defining images of London 2012.
The 15-year-old schoolgirl – described as a ‘chatterbox’ by the headmaster at her school in Plymouth, Devon– was left speechless with emotion as the enormity of her win sank in.
The teenage sensation, who has already broken nine swimming records in her home country, set a new European record in the heats and was fastest into the final, where she led from start to finish and blew away the competition, including world champion Rebecca Soni, to win in 1:05.55.
Later she said: ‘I was just so shocked. I slept with the medal in the pocket of my pyjamas.’
Her astonishing win thrilled the crowd in the Aquatics Centre – not least because British fans have adopted Meilutyte, who moved with her father to the UK aged 12 in search of better training and coaching facilities.
Sadly for her British admirers, Ruta is indisputably Lithuanian – and the country’s president Dalia Grybauskaite was at the Aquatics Centre to watch her win her country’s first Olympic swimming gold medal, while her hometown of Kaunas was gripped by celebrations.
She won a boarding scholarship to Plymouth College, an independent school that has become a base for elite young swimmers. Arguably its most famous graduate is Team GB diver Tom Daley, and it has also produced an Olympic medallist in Cassie Patten, who finished third in the 2008 10km open water swim.
Though relocation – so often a necessary evil for elite athletes – undoubtedly has played a part in her success, hasn’t been an easy ride for the young swimmer.
She told journalists: ‘It was quite hard to get used to life here at first. My Dad had come here for work, to earn more money.
‘I miss a lot of things from back in Lithuania. I’m excited because when after the Olympics I will go there for a holiday, chill out on the beach and see some of my friends and relatives.’
Hard work has proved the best cure for homesickness and, under the supervision of English coach John Rudd Meilutyte, she swims up to 60km every week, a regime that would have been difficult to sustain in Lithuania, which has just three Olympic-length pools.
There seems little doubt she would have shone at London 2012 regardless of where she trained, having smashed two personal bests on her way to the final.
Rudd said after her memorable 100m win: ‘We should feel really proud of her, she is a product of our nation’s work. I hope Brits around the country got behind her – she should be our adopted Brit. She is a talented and vigilant worker. When you’ve got talent and work ethic you’ve got a great kid.’