Have you ever seen the speech by actor Anna Paquin in The Piano, for which she won an Oscar? 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. This was followed by another. Her eyes were wide, and her mouth, fixed into a permanently shocked smile. It was a rum incongruity that someone appearing to be 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, you may be asking, what does this all have to do with the Olympic Games?
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 of the sport, such as Ye Shiwen and Missy Franklin. However, at this early stage of the London 2012 Olympics, no star has shone brighter than Ruta Meilutyte.
Meilutye’s story is tailor made for the Games. From Lithuania, she has been coached by Briton, John Rudd, who spotted her luminescent talent. Uprooting Meilutye from her home country and relocating the 15-year-old to Plymouth for training 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 100m 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 and get athletes in good shape for the final. That is when the champion performers come to the party. Could Ruta do it when it really mattered? She could. On Monday, in the final, 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. American Breeja Larson instinctively jumped into the pool, and had to be called back so the race could be restarted.
All the pre-race focus and “getting in the zone”. Every ounce of mental preparation out of the window due to a piece of shoddy equipment. Any competitor could be forgiven for allowing that to derail their race, especially an individual as green as Meilutyte. Yet, 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. Once again young Meilutyte came under pressure. Her mentality was 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 can be said to still be 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, Meilutyte reacted similarly to Paquin. When asked how she felt, Meilutyte was unable to string three words together. Her eyes darted around nervously and she stumbled over her speech, before hurriedly thanking her parents in Lithuanian. Had a mature adult exhibited this behaviour, one may have branded them as stand-offish or downright rude. 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 had been a mistake, before taking the gold medal back.
The Olympics has a fine history of showcasing girls with a preternatural talent that does not 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 the Games, and a host of displays that will take viewers’ breath away. However, if London 2012 were to end right now, we would be able to see it off contented with a memory to truly cherish. Ruta Meilutyte, take a bow.
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