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Olympic teen swim sensation Ruta Meilutyte overcomes adversity

By Ravi Ubha and Francesca Church, CNN
updated 1:48 PM EDT, Wed June 5, 2013
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Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
Lithuania's young sporting prodigy
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruta Meilutyte says getting out of bed is difficult but she does it because she loves swimming
  • As a 15-year-old in 2012, Meilutyte became Lithuania's first Olympic gold medalist in the pool
  • Several years after the death of her mother, Meilutyte moved to England to better her prospects
  • Meilutyte says she visualizes her races from start to finish before major swimming meets

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for videos and features.

(CNN) -- Ruta Meilutyte's initial brush with swimming as a seven-year-old in Lithuania could never have foretold her success in the pool.

"I remember in my first session I jumped into the deep end and nearly drowned," Meilutyte told CNN's Human to Hero series. "My coach kind of saved me."

One can safely say that she has gotten much, much better.

Only eight years after that frightening experience, Meilutyte became her country's maiden Olympic gold medalist in swimming by upsetting the reigning world champion in the 100-meter breaststroke at London 2012.

However, her path to success and "rock star" status in Lithuania, as her coach put it, hasn't been an easy one.

Still not officially classified as an adult, she has had to deal with the death of her mother, who was hit by a car when Meilutyte was four and barely out of diapers.

She was also forced to adapt to a new country when she left Lithuania for England in 2009, a life-altering move instigated by her father who thought his daughter's prospects in both swimming and academics would improve.

He was right.

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Meilutyte trains in Plymouth, southwest England, and goes to the same school attended by Tom Daley, a bronze medalist in diving for Great Britain in 2012. Her coach Jon Rudd calls her a "great scholar."

In Lithuania, the pool is "not great," Meilutyte said. "We don't have a good training facility. Also it's really hard to combine school with swimming. You either do one or the other.

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"We just decided to go to England because it would be a great time to balance school and swimming at the same time as college. Yes Lithuania and England are really a bit different, the people are different, but I got used to it really fast."

It's indeed apparent that Meilutyte, a bubbly blonde, is a quick learner.

Although she says the breaststroke was "natural" for her, it wasn't her original specialty.

"I did it once for a laugh, because I was a freestyler, and it went really well," Meilutyte said. "So I kept competing in it and training until I got better and better.

"It's quite a tough stroke but I really like it. It's like a frog stroke."

She used to "mess about" in training and only took swimming seriously when she broke a national record in her age group.

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That's when something clicked.

She liked the feeling winning brought, and pushed herself further.

Still, not many, including Meilutyte herself, expected her to claim gold at the Olympics.

In a sport where half a second is a sizable progression, Meilutyte shaved about two seconds off her personal best in London, raising her level when it mattered most.

In the final, Meilutyte edged American 2011 world champion Rebecca Soni -- someone she looked up to as a role model -- by 0.08 seconds.

Australia's Leisel Jones, one of the leading swimmers of her generation, was in the final, too.

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"It was all really surreal for quite a while," Meilutyte said. "It takes a while to sink in because my mind wasn't preparing for anything like that. I never told myself I would win a medal."

Soni would later win gold in the 200m breaststroke in London to successfully defend her 2008 Olympic title from Beijing.

"I always looked up to her," Meilutyte said. "Being there with all the best swimmers of the world is something I always dreamed of."

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Now Meilutyte, at 16, is a role model.

Rudd said a breakout performance from Meilutyte had been "brewing for a while" and that there was nothing sinister behind her incredible improvement -- Chinese teen Ye Shiwen had to rebut accusations of possible drug use after her own world-record performances at London 2012.

"We didn't realistically know what she would do," Rudd said in July, following Meilutyte's victory. "Her breaststroke was pretty tidy and we tidied it up even more.

"She is a talented and vigilant worker. When you've got talent and work ethic, you've got a great kid."

Along with putting in the hours, Meilutyte is a fierce competitor. For her, finishing second isn't good enough.

"I think I am really competitive in everything," she said. "I love racing, I love winning, I hate losing. I think that's one of the properties I've got and one of the things that push me in training.

"I've got goals I want to achieve."

As hard of a worker as Meilutyte is, she does admit that it's not easy leaving her warm bed for a cold pool in Plymouth to begin her day.

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The usual starting time for training is 5:30 a.m., when most of her fellow students are sleeping.

She usually trains 30 hours per week overall -- the toughest parts are the extended non-stop cardio sessions -- but must fulfill her commitments as a fulltime student. Sometimes she struggles to stay awake in the classroom.

It's no surprise that Meilutyte doesn't have much time to hang around with friends.

"You don't have much time to socialize," she said. "I have to train early so I can't stay up late, so obviously the social life gets affected a bit. But I don't mind.

I used to just mess about in training and never took it too seriously until I broke my first national record in my age group
Ruta Meilutyte

"You get into a routine with it. It all becomes a bit easier. There is an outcome at the end of this. It is worth it."

As for fast food and the like, it's off limits. Well, mostly.

"I don't count my calories," Meilutyte added. "I have to eat a lot, healthy food, not cakes, although I do like chocolate and cakes a lot."

Meilutyte's next major meet is next month's world championships in Barcelona, where she has a busy program competing in the 50m and 100m breaststroke, plus the 50m and 100m freestyle.

And yes, Meilutyte will continue to represent Lithuania, the former Soviet republic -- though she is sometimes asked if she wants to switch nationalities after spending four years in Britain.

"Some of my teammates from Lithuania also don't train in Lithuania," she said. "It doesn't really matter where you train -- as long as you go to competition and you have the Lithuanian T-shirt on, you are representing your country.

"That's what I train for, to represent my country, and I want the world to know about it."

The world has gotten to know Ruta Meilutyte, and there could be more to come.

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