Ruta Meilutyte: A Look Back at the Rise and Fall of an Olympic Champion

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Ruta Meilutyte retired from swimming Wednesday at the age of 22; Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Ruta Meilutyte announced her retirement from competitive swimming this week after missing three doping tests and facing the threat of a suspension. The 22-year-old Lithuanian won the Olympic gold medal in the 100 breast at just 15-years-old at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, scoring one of the biggest upsets at the meet over Rebecca Soni.

Coming in to the London Olympics, she was only a 1:07.30 in the 100 breast, hardly a medal favorite. In 2011, she was ranked 23rd in the world with a 1:07.96, hardly a favorite to even reach the Olympic final. But in heat four of six at the 2012 Olympic Games, she lowered her best time all the way down to a 1:05.56, scoring the top seed out of the heats.

She proved that 1:05 was not a fluke when she swam a new European Record in the semi-finals with a 1:05.21, again getting the top seed in the final. The Olympics were Meilutyte’s first major international meet at the senior level, but suddenly Meilutyte was the favorite to win the gold medal. In a mini-documentary published by Trans World Sport in 2013, Meilutyte and her coach Jon Rudd said they went to London as a way to enjoy it and gain experience to peak at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

They were just hoping she would make the final.

The nerves surrounding you when you’re competing in your first Olympics can be destabilizing. Some young athletes are able to handle it well, like Missy Franklin in 2012. Some young athletes are not able to handle it well, like Katie Hoff in 2004. But Meilutyte had nerves of steel in London. She was able to handle the 24 hour turnaround from semi-finals to the finals as the top seed, even if it was her first ever major final at the international level. She was able to handle the faux-false start in the final when Breeja Larson reacted to a rogue starter that caused the race to be delayed almost two minutes, which can be a lifetime when you’re sitting behind the blocks.

Meilutyte swam a little slower in the final with a 1:05.47, but was still good enough to win the gold medal. At just 15, she became Lithuania’s first medalist in swimming at the Olympic Games, rocketing her to international fame. It was also Lithuania’s sixth gold medal the country had ever won at the Olympic Games.

Hardly anyone knew her name before London, but after London she was a household name. After she returned home from the Olympics, she was given a heroes welcome in her home country of Lithuania.

She continued her momentum with two gold medals in the 50 and 100 breast and a silver in the 100 IM at the 2012 World Short Course Championships. In 2013 at the World Championships in Barcelona, she became famous for her quick reaction time when she registered a 0.57 reaction time in the semi-finals of the 50 breaststroke. It was the fastest reaction time of any woman at the meet, and only second to Anthony Clark’s 0.55 in the heats of the 50 free, and tied with Ben Proud’s 0.57 in the 50 free heats.

In the semi-finals of the 100 breast on the second day of the Championships in Spain, Meilutyte just dipped under Jessica Hardy’s 1:04.45 world record from 2009 with a 1:04.35 for the first world record of her career. The next day in the final, Meilutyte held off a challenge from Russia’s Yulia Efimova with a 1:04.42, missing her world record, but still winning her first World title. Efimova was second at 1:05.02.

At just 16, Meilutyte had achieved the Olympic gold, the world record, and the World title. At this point, Meilutyte was starting to be considered unbeatable.

After 2013, women’s swimming was being dominated by 18-year-old Missy Franklin, 16-year-old Katie Ledecky and 16-year-old Meilutyte. The Lithuanian was one of the biggest stars in the world of swimming and it was starting to look like she would never be beat.

Efimova served a doping suspension in 2014. Soni retired in January 2014. At this point, Meilutyte had no equals. In the summer of 2014, she elected not to compete at the European Championships, an event she (probably) would have easily won with Rikke Pedersen claiming the gold at 1:06.23. Instead she swam at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China since she was still eligible at 17. She won the gold medal there with a 1:05.21, the fastest time in the world by six tenths of a second.

Does this sound familiar?

Meilutyte’s career could be comparable in some way to that of Missy Franklin, who recently announced her retirement in December. Franklin chose not to undergo a shoulder surgery that would cause her to lose more time in the water, thus ending her career at just 23 years of age. Ruta’s circumstances for retiring were a little different but their career trajectories were similar.

Franklin quickly rose to international prominence at the 2011 World Championships. She had some impressive relay splits early on in the meet, including the world leading time in the 200 free to lead off the gold medal winning 4×200 free relay team. And then she finished her meet with a gold medal in the 200 back with a near-world record.

It was Franklin’s first final at a major international meet. She won the gold medal and quickly became one of the most famous swimmers in the United States, much like Meilutyte did after winning the Olympic gold medal in 2012.

After 2013, Franklin had nine gold medals at the World Championships, which was the most all-time for any woman, and she did it in only two World Championships. After 2013, much like Ruta, Missy was considered unbeatable.

(140818) -- NANJING, Aug 18, 2014 (Xinhua) -- Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania competes during the Women's 50m Breastsroke match at Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province, on Aug. 18, 2014.Ruta Meilutyte won the gold medal.(Xinhua/Yang Lei)(hhx)

Photo Courtesy: Xinhua/Yang Lei

But in 2015, Ruta and Missy were showing real signs of mortality. Both of them were favorites to win their best events at the World Championships, but they weren’t as dominant.

Leading up to the 2015 Worlds, Swimming World’s Jeff Commings wrote this about Meilutyte’s gold medal chances:

“Though Yuliya Efimova has the perfect mix of speed and endurance, it will be tough for her to get past world record holder Ruta Meilutyte in the 100 breast. Sure, the Russian crowd will help Efimova through the entire race, but Meilutyte looks unstoppable.

“She has not, however, been under 1:05 since winning the 2013 world championship title, so that could give Efimova a little bit of confidence. If Meilutyte can’t replicate her 2013 strategy and keep Efimova at bay, the Russian will find herself with the 100 breast gold medal.”

The 100 breast race in Kazan played out almost exactly how it was predicted. Meilutyte took it out and led at the 50 but was ultimately chased down by Efimova in the final 25.

It was her first loss at a major international meet in the 100 and she was well off her 1:04 world record with a 1:06.36 for the silver medal. It was her first major international loss in the 100 breast.

Even if she showed vulnerability, she was still not being counted out to repeat her gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. In March 2016, reigning World Champion Efimova failed a drug test, which (at the time) meant she wasn’t going to compete in Rio. The United States had a rising up-and-comer in a 19-year-old Lilly King, who dipped down to a 1:05.73 at the Charlotte Pro Swim Series a few months before the Games. The gold medal was wide open with Efimova (temporarily) out of the picture.

Swimming World’s Annie Grevers wrote this before Rio:

“Can Meilutyte return to her world record-setting ways? She hasn’t approached her 1:04.35 since she set the record three years ago. Her most recent times include a 1:05.64 (sf) at Kazan in 2015 and a 1:05.82 last March.”

But as we got closer to Rio, the attention was all on Efimova, who had been reinstated to the meet just days before the competition. King was the gold medal favorite. And after the semi-finals, attention was put on the American King, who famously called out her Russian rival on her doping history.

Lost in all of the craziness was 19-year-old Meilutyte, who was the fourth seed with a 1:06.44. A bronze medal seemed within her reach.

But like mentioned earlier, a lot can happen in between the semi-finals and finals. Despite swimming a 1:06 in the heats and the semi-finals, Meilutyte faded to seventh place in the final with a 1:07.32.

No woman has ever successfully repeated Olympic golds in the 100 breast and Meilutyte was unable to break that streak in Rio. But she assured she was not done.

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Photo Courtesy: R-Sport / MIA Rossiya Segodnya

At the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, Meilutyte had shown signs of her old self when she challenged King every stroke in the semi-finals of the 100 breast. She posted a 1:05.06, her fastest time in four years. It was also the fourth fastest time of her career, sitting only behind her three swims from the 2013 Worlds.

With all the attention on Efimova and King, maybe Meilutyte could shock them all and win the gold medal?

But she wound up short again. It was a much better showing this time though, placing fourth in 1:05.65. But in the process, she lost her world record to King, who lowered it to a 1:04.13.

Meilutyte was four years removed from the 2013 Worlds when she set the world record. Even if she hadn’t lowered her best time in four years, she was still considered an inspiration among her peers, including King, who took her world record.

“I remember watching Ruta win gold at the London 2012 Olympic Games in the 100 breaststroke when I was 15 years old on my couch at home in Indiana. Watching Ruta swim on TV inspired me to dream big as all I could think about was that I wanted to win gold at the Olympics someday,” King told Swimming World.

“I’ll never forget in 2016 when Ruta and I shared a pretty special moment after I won the gold and she congratulated me with such grace after a disappointing race in Rio. I’m very disappointed to hear the news and reasons behind Ruta’s retirement. As you know, I still stand strong about swimming and all athletes participating in a clean sport. I wish Ruta well and thank her for inspiring me to become the swimmer I am today.”

She had changed coaches a few times, she struggled to remain at the top of the world. And then she faced a doping suspension.

She had missed three doping tests within a 12 month period and as a result was facing a two-year suspension, which would have kept her out of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

FINA had instructed Meilutyte to provide clarification within 12 days of receipt of the notification. She indicated that all three missed tests were her complete fault and she irresponsibly filled in information about the change of location. Fifteen days after her potential suspension was made public, Meilutyte announced her retirement.

“I have given all of myself to swimming,” Meilutyte said in a statement. “I used to live with it since my early years. Due to a busy workout schedule, I had to compromise my studies, but I want to start again now. I want to do simple things now, to grow, understand myself and the world around me in a better way.”

She decided to forego a run at her third Olympics to instead focus on life outside of the pool.

Like Ruta, Missy Franklin knew it was time to end her career in the pool and move on to life outside of it.

“I began to realize that my greatest dream in life, more so than Olympic gold, has always been becoming a mom,” Franklin said immediately after her retirement.

“Swimming had been such a huge part of my life for as long as I could remember, but it was not my entire life. I still have dreams, goals, aspirations and intentions I plan on living out every day of my life.”

It just goes to show how difficult it is to stay at the top in this sport. There have been lots of teenage sensations in the sport of swimming on the women’s side. Amanda BeardMary T. Meagher and Janet Evans all found success in the sport in their teens and struggled to maintain that into their 20s. They all won medals later on in their careers but others weren’t so lucky.

Diana Mocanu and Ye Shiwen were Olympic Champions at 16 and struggled to return to form after. Meilutyte and Franklin seemed to fall into that category after winning golds in 2012. They were deemed unbeatable but within three years had fallen from the top.

And now both have walked away from a sport that gave them so much success.

Although their reasons for retirement were completely different, their careers were very similar. And both Ruta Meilutyte and Missy Franklin will leave lasting impressions on the sport of swimming as inspirations for others, even if their careers ended in sour ways.

Swimming - Prudential Singapore Swim Stars 2014 - OCBC Aquatic Centre, Singapore Sports Hub, Singapore - 5/9/14 100m Breaststroke - Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania celebrates her win Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Norman Ng Livepic EDITORIAL USE ONLY.

Photo Courtesy: Action Images / Norman Ng

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

4 comments

  1. Peter Hocking

    Ruta was always great with the kids!

  2. Andrew Webber

    Fall? Still the 2nd fastest ever, tell us more about that fall….

    • Andy Day

      Andrew Webber missed 3 drug tests?

    • Andrew Webber

      Andy Day Seems she’d already retired, possibly had some health issues. Chances of her cheating are pretty zero, chances of her main rival cheating 100%, but fina were ok with that