In 2008, I competed in Beijing Olympics and I am still feeling many emotions related to my journey to China as well as the Olympics itself. I am very proud and fortunate to be an Olympian and the Olympics will always stay with me as one of my biggest achievements in life. When I look back at my journey to Beijing, I can call it: unpredictable, difficult, frustrating, empowering, joyous, rewarding… I do not even know if I have enough words to describe it well. However, I will try to give you a flavor of my road to Beijing.
I dreamed to be in Olympics since I was a little girl. I remember seeing the Seoul Olympics at 11 years of age where two Lithuanian athletes competing for USSR won silver medals and both of them where my moms friends. It was something special for me to know a few Olympians and I was so inspired that I started a hope deep down that I can one day call myself an Olympian.
Little did I know how much work I needed to pour into that dream and that it will take me 20 years to be a part of this great competition.
My competitive athletics started in middle school and high school where I had great success in track and field in different events and had a lot of fun competing in Lithuania (my native country) and abroad. I became Lithuanian champion in different age groups 12 times from 1989 till 1997 in 60 meter hurdles, long jump, triple jump, 800m, 300m hurdles, and pentathlon. Training conditions were hard. In the summer I trained on the dirt track and in the winter I trained on the basketball court practicing my long jump, triple jump landing on gymnastics mats and even running my long runs around the basketball court. My parents, both teachers and coaches, where very supportive, driving me and my brother sometimes to a few practices per week to the capital city Vilnius (35-40 miles away) the last few years of my high school, knowing that for my further improvement in my jumping and running I needed to practice on a better track.
The next chapter of my competitive athletics started once I entered Vilnius Pedagogical University. I had struggled my first 2 years in college. I had many difficulties with my new life as a student as well as adapting to my training regimen. I started questioning if I should continue competing. However, my inner belief that you can not achieve greatness without struggles and tribulations kept me going. At last, in my third year, I was able to feel that my training and perseverance was paying off. The same year, I decided to pursue studies abroad and it happened that I was recruited by the University of Minnesota.
Coming to the United States was a decision that changed my life and my running that made it possible. I had a great first cross-country season winning the majority of my cross-country races that season, including Roy Griak, and earning All-American in cross-country, but the remaining one and a half years as Gopher I continued to struggle, performing below my full potential. Streaks of injuries, adapting to a new culture, learning a new language, iron deficiency, and also an eating disorder kept me tired and drained. I am not sure sometimes how I did it. Once I graduated from the University of Minnesota, I decided to stop running because I did not have anymore energy. I decided to take care of my health and pursue graduate studies.
A few years passed when I started missing running and competing. It was in the middle of my graduate studies that I decided to return to competition, but in totally different event: 3000m steeple chasse. In 2005, I finished my Masters degree and three years past my first steeple chase competition, I made the World Championship Team for Lithuania. It was so exciting to me to be on the starting line in the World Championships (it was the first world championship that contested 3000m steeple chase for women) and hear my family and my husband cheering for me. I narrowly missed a final heat and that motivated me to try harder in my training and to see if I can train for a three more years to get to the first Olympics that contested the steeple for women. I was starting to not only dream about the Olympics, but believing that I belong in Olympics that I am one of the strongest steeple chasers in the world. However, 2006 was a disappointing year. I had to work to support my training and my living, which made it very hard for me to train well. After my poor performance in the European Championships, I decided to hang my shoes for good, since I could not figure out how I can find a balance between my job, family and training. My husband and I decided to have our first baby, who was born in June of 2007.
An Olympic Journey
The birth of my daughter brought a different meaning to my life and I still could not let go of my Olympic dream. I decided to try one more time. I knew, I had a huge goal in front of me, knowing that I had about 1 year to get back to training and be in better shape than before my daughter. I also knew if I would not try, I would regret it for the rest of my life. It was probably the most difficult year of my life, but also the most rewarding year of my life. I can put my memories in a few words: training, trying to get some sleep, breastfeeding, pumping, working, and have a few minutes with my husband. I needed to continue to be tuned into my body to not over train when I am sleep deprived or tired, to push hard when I am feeling well, to get more fuel when I was noticing a little less breast milk or slower recovery between workouts. It was a difficult balancing act. Once I started competing in steeple, I had about 3 months to hit an A Olympic standard in only a few races. I had to believe and to know deep down that I can do it within this small window and I did it just a few days before my daughters first birthday.
I think that it was such a great experience in my life that I will never forget it. I remember walking with my husband down to the track and water cube a day before the race and crying from overwhelming emotions and memories of this journey. I remember, race day, being in the zone throughout the whole process of me arriving to the warm up stadium, and going through the call rooms very focused and calm at the same time. I remember, my breath taken away for a minute, when I entered The Birds Nest and recognized the importance of this moment in my life and then going back to my mental preparation for my race. I knew that I was prepared to run my personal best and to make a final. The race felt great but it was bitter sweet when it ended. I had a huge personal best time, but I still fell short by only 0.81 seconds to make the final. At the end of the journey, though I didn’t reach my ultimate goal, I know I gained valuable lessons and experiences that helped me learn so much about myself and that will help me in the future in my life.