Lithuania's Ruta Meilutyte poses with her gold medal after the podium ceremony for the women's 100m breaststroke swimming event at the London 2012 Olympic Games in the Aquatics Centre at the Olympic Park in London on July 30, 2012.
LONDON - At just 15, schoolgirl Ruta Meilutyte showed nerves of steel as she withstood a delayed start that rattled experienced Olympians to claim Lithuania's first ever swimming medal and become the one of the youngest women to win the Olympic title.
Meilutyte, who set a European record in qualifying for Monday's race, was ahead from the start, racing neck and neck with American world champion Rebecca Soni in a desperate struggle that had the crowd roaring, before getting her hands on the wall first.
Removing her green cap to reveal long blond hair, only then did she let herself get caught in the moment, holding her hand to her mouth as she surveyed the scoreboard. She later sobbed uncontrollably as she stepped on the podium.
"I can't believe it. It is too much for me," she said after receiving her medal, before being whisked away from the waiting media.
"It was hard and difficult. At the moment I can't speak too much, but it means a lot to me and I'm so proud."
Meilutyte became the first swimmer to win an Olympic medal competing under the Lithuania flag, although she was not the first from the Baltic state.
In 1980, at the Moscow Olympics, Lina Kaciusyte became Lithuania's first champion when she won the 200m breaststroke, competing for the Soviet Union.
Rebecca Soni, who had already come second in the event in Beijing four years ago, won silver again, securing her fourth medal. The bronze went to Japanese Olympic debutant Satomi Suzuki.
Meilutyte's victory, watched from the stands by her father and grandmother, provoked an outpouring of national pride in the small Baltic state of three million people, recovering from one of the deepest recessions in the European Union and still facing high unemployment and emigration rates.
"Thank you, Ruta, for allowing us to be proud to be Lithuanians, to allow us to forget all crisis and other hardships," Lithuanian national television's commentator said.
Lithuania's president, Dalia Grybauskaite extended her stay in London to watch the final and cheered from the stands during a race that has dominated Lithuanian media.
Meilutyte, virtually unknown in her homeland before the Olympics, became an instant national hero after winning a spot in the final against a stellar field that included Soni and Australia's Leisel Jones, who started out as a 15-year-old in Sydney in 2000 and won the gold in Beijing.
But it was the Lithuanian's composure and her ability to focus on her own race that got her gold.
"She is amazing at this, at blanking everything else out and just concentrating on what she has to do," said her coach, Jon Rudd, who has trained her for three years.
"She's an extraordinarily conscientious worker. When you get talent and the work ethic, you have got the ideal person."
Meilutyte, whose mother died in a car accident in 2001, was raised in Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city, by her grandmother, while her father was working abroad.
At 13, she moved to the southern English town of Plymouth to join her elder brother and her father, nursing home worker Saulius Meilutis.
"It was very difficult to watch, but I'm fine now. I will have to get used to it," Meilutis, struggling to hold back tears, told Lithuanian television after the race.
Meilutyte, who struggled to adapt to British life at first, now goes to a local school with an respected elite swimming programme, also attended by British diver Tom Daley. Daley was just 14 when he competed in Beijing, making him Britain's youngest competitor at those Games.
"She's amazing," he said ahead of Meilutyte's race, before tweeting a message of support for his schoolmate.
Meilutyte has another chance at gold with the 50m freestyle and the 100m freestyle later this week.
"She's a bit shocked at the moment. The plan is to swim the freestyle events," Rudd said."She is good at them, good for her age, probably not good enough to make the final here, but it would be nice to see her do them and get some personal best times."