World Championships, Day Three Finals: Ruta Meilutyte Reclaims 100 Breast World Title 10 Years Later

Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania reacts after winning the gold medal in the 100m Breaststroke Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 25th, 2023.
Ruta Meilutyte -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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World Championships, Day Three Finals: Ruta Meilutyte Reclaims 100 Breast World Title 10 Years Later

Few swimmers have experienced the highs and lows of swimming like Ruta Meilutyte has. At age 15, she was the surprise Olympic champion in London, and one year later, she became a world champion and world-record holder. However, Meilutyte’s career had tailed off by the time she turned 20. Now, at age 26, Meilutyte is once again tops in the world in her signature event, winning a global final of the 100 breaststroke for the first time since 2013.

Expected to face off with world-record holder Lilly King and Tokyo Olympic champions Lydia Jacoby and Tatjana Schoenmaker, Meilutyte was instead dominant amid a strong field. The Lithuanian jumped out ahead of the field by eight tenths, turning under world-record pace in 29.78, and only she extended her advantage over the back half.

Meilutyte touched in 1:04.62 to win by more than one second. The mark is not her lifetime-best time, with the 1:04.35 she set at the 2013 World Championships still standing as the world junior record, but this was her fastest time since those Barcelona Worlds. Only King, Meilutyte, Yuliya Efimova and Jessica Hardy have ever been faster.

“I’m really super grateful, having fun,” Meilutyte said of her return to swimming. “I’ve definitely matured and grown in many different ways. I can’t point to something in particular, but I’m definitely more relaxed. The whole approach is different, to training, to swimming, to everything.” The champion added that in her late-career return to the sport, “The main thing is just to be in the moment and enjoy.”

As the field fell by the wayside, Schoenmaker emerged, moving up from fourth place at the turn to second at the finish, securing silver for South Africa in 1:05.84. Third went to Jacoby, with her usual strong finish good enough to earn bronze in 1:05.93.

In a major surprise, King faded to fourth with a time of 1:06.02, just ahead of Ireland’s Mona McSharry (1:06.07).

Meilutyte’s early 20s dropoff began when ended up seventh in the 2016 Olympic final, and before the Tokyo Olympics, Meilutyte announced her retirement after she was suspended for multiple missed anti-doping tests. But in 2022, with the suspension expired, Meilutyte opted to return to the sport, and she instantly excelled, reaching levels that had eluded her long before her hiatus from the sport.

At her first major meet back, Meilutyte won bronze in a tight 100 breaststroke World Championships final before claiming the first 50 breast world title of her career. Arriving in Fukuoka, Meilutyte had already established herself as a world-title favorite in the 50 breast and a solid medal contender over 100 meters, but her first swim of the meet changed the game.

Meilutyte swam a time of 1:04.67 in the 100 breast prelims, already more than one second quicker than last year’s world-title winning time, and she became the top swimmer in the world for 2023, ahead of the 1:04.75 that King posted last month at U.S. Nationals. And Meilutyte backed it up in semifinals with a 1:05.09 to lead King and Schoenmaker into the final and set up a title showdown. Ultimately, that race would turn into a blowout as Meilutyte regained her spot atop the world.

As for Jacoby, now 19, she finished well shy of her season-best time of 1:05.16 from U.S. Nationals last month, but a return to the podium was plenty satisfying after she missed out on the 2022 Worlds team entirely. After qualifying for Fukuoka, Jacoby shared publicly about her battle with post-Olympic depression and how she gradually worked her way back to international-contending form. Recognizing her symptoms and focusing on mental health helped Jacoby find her way personally, and a move to the University of Texas this year has helped revitalize her training.

“Of course I don’t go into a meet with a goal of getting a bronze medal,” Jacoby said. “You go in chasing the best. But just to come out of here with a bronze medal is huge for me. I’ve spent a lot of time chasing the person I was two years ago, so to be here and be better than the person I was last year is great.”

Meanwhile, the swim was a major disappointment for King, the American looking to return to the top step of the podium after a four-year stretch when she was nearly unbeatable in the 100 breast followed by two disappointing major meets. King, who set the world record of 1:04.13 on her way to gold at the 2017 World Championships in between Olympic gold in 2016 and a second world title in 2019, faded to third in the 2021 Olympic final behind Jacoby and Schoenmaker, and last year, after a bout of COVID-19, King struggled to reclaim her speed and ended up fourth in a tight final.

But King was brilliant at Nationals, claiming titles in all three breaststroke events and setting up big expectations for her at Worlds. Her 100-meter performance was particularly impressive as she clocked 1:04.75. For whatever reason, that form eluded her in the Fukuoka final as she once again missed the podium in her one-time signature event. King was in second place at the turn in 30.61, but after finishing in 34.03 at Nationals, she was instead back in a sluggish 35.41 here.


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