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  Vol. 16, November-December, 2008
Nothing will be the Same Again

Laima Vincė

Gintarė Volungevičiūtė is the first Lithuanian woman to bring home an Olympic medal in sailing.

Although she was known in sailing circles as a potential Olympic winner (she was among the first three in several legs of the World Cup, came fourth in the 2008 Laser World Class, and won the silver in the 2006 European championships), she was almost unknown, not only internationally but also in Lithuania where sailing is not a very popular sport.

Basketball, not sailing, is Lithuania’s national passion. However, after Volungevičiūtė’s victory, this might just change. Perhaps at the next Olympics, unlike this year, the sailing team will send more than one competitor.

Twenty-five-year-old Volungevičiūtė won the silver in the women’s Laser Radials, crossing the finishing line in the Medal Race first. The American Anna Tunnicliffe came in second, but won the gold because she had collected more points over the course of the earlier races. The bronze went to Xu Lijia of China.

Volungevičiūtė had to place well in a series of seven races leading up to the race, in order to compete as one of the ten finalists. After a shaky start, she caught up.

“I knew after I placed well in the sixth race that I was in a good position to win a medal,” she says. “But I didn’t let it go to my head. I just focused on the race.”

In the Olympics and at home

The Laser Radial is a popular one-design class of small dinghy, built by Vanguard Sailboats. It is a single-handed boat, which means that it is sailed by one person. This year in Qingdao in China, the Laser Radial was chosen as the Olympic-class boat for women.

Winning a medal in Laser Radials requires physical strength, skill as a tactitian, and intuition. Volungevičiūtė possesses all of these qualities. But then there is always the question of the wind.

“The sailing conditions are never the same during a race,” the young sailor says. “Usually if the wind is strong, then it’s easy to predict the outcome. The strongest woman wins.”

However, on the day of the final race, the wind was changeable: a lake wind, with short weak gusts.

“I realised it was right for me,” Volungevičiūtė says.

“I grew up sailing on lakes in Lithuania. I know how to handle this type of wind.”

Volungevičiūtė, who lives in Kaunas, where she is studying for a masters degree in sports and tourism management at the Academy for Physical Education, trained at the Kaunas Yacht Club, one of only a handful of yacht clubs in Lithuania. The club is located on the Kauno Marios, the largest man-made body of water in Lithuania. It was created in 1959 to power a hydro-electric plant. Forty-five villages were flooded to create the lake, which covers an area of 63.5 square kilometres.

However, in the final leg of the race, the wind was to the advantage of Anna Tunnicliffe, pushing her up right behind Volungevičiūtė. Had the American only come fifth in the Medal Race, in which she had been trailing in ninth position for most of the time, Volungevičiūtė would have brought home the gold.

 “She got a good gust of wind and caught up with me,” Volungevičiūtė recalls.

 “But I’m not upset about it. It was her fate. It was the hand of God. She was meant to win the gold, and I was meant to win the silver.”

The Olympics changed her life

“The Olympics changed my life completely,” Volun­ge­vi­čiūtė says, beaming.

And this is true. Nothing will ever be the same for her again. Before winning the silver, she was almost completely unknown in Lithuania, despite placing every year since 2004 in significant international sailing competitions.

“There were times when I’d come back to Lithuania after winning an important race, after giving everything I had, and there would be no mention of it in the newspapers. The day I won the silver, my photograph became the hottest commodity in Lithuania, because none of the television stations or newspapers had one!”

She sighs when she remembers her years as an unknown, under-financed athlete.

“At one point I was so frustrated, I said to my coach: ‘We should just give up. Why are we going to all this trouble if Lithuania doesn’t even notice us or even care?’ That went on for years, the sacrifices and hardships, and at the same time the lack of attention.

“Then one day I realised that I was doing it for myself, for my family, for my coach, and not for the newspapers. That was when my inner energy changed, and I began winning one race after another. Soon I moved into the ranks of the top ten European sailors.

“Sailing is not just a sport. It’s an experience that helps you build your character. It builds up self-confidence, trust and self-esteem. All of this is important for girls.”

Already, she notes, many more girls are coming to the Kaunas Yacht Club to learn how to sail.

“I grew up between two brothers, and I wanted to do whatever boys were doing.”

Beyond serving as a role model to young sailors, Volun­ge­vičiūtė possesses a sense of social responsibility unique to one who leads such a busy life. Whenever she finds the time, she visits children at an orphanage in Kaunas. When she was growing up, she and her mother used to visit orphans. They would bring home two little girls to stay with their family over the holidays, and later received a brother and sister over the summer.

Early beginner

At the age of nine, Volungevičiūtė began sailing Optimists, a small single-crew dinghy designed for children up to 15. Her father took a job at the Kaunas Yacht Club, and it was convenient to bring her to work with him where he could keep an eye on her. At that time only boys sailed at the club, but Gintarė’s father convinced the sailing instructor to teach her. Later, at the age of 11, she began training with the coach Linas Eidukevičius, who also became a close family friend.

Spending many hours on the lake, Volungevičiūtė found that she loved the water, the wind, the isolation, the introspection and the physical challenge of handling a boat single-handed. She began to race Optimists as a young girl, and did well.

When she was 16, Eidukevičius offered to dedicate his time to coaching her and another talented girl in Olympic-class Lasers. He suggested aiming for the Olympics. She accepted the challenge. That was nine years ago. The threesome trained relentlessly, receiving little funding for their efforts. They bought a small camper, and drove to races throughout Europe, sleeping and eating in the van.

“Our living conditions on the road could be tough at times,” she admits. “We’d come back from the water drenched and exhausted, and it would be raining. There was nowhere to hang wet clothing in the camping site, and the next day we’d have to go out and race again in wet things. We each had a small hard bunk to sleep on, and so it was difficult to get enough rest before the race.”

But the worst part was the feeling of inferiority that she and her teammate experienced when they saw competitors arriving at the race well-rested, after a good night’s sleep in an expensive hotel.

“They had professional coaches and quality equipment. Sometimes I’d just look at them and say to myself: ‘I can’t even pretend I’m good enough to race against them.’

“I’d say to our coach: ‘Let’s just pack up and go home.’”

But they did not go home. Eidukevičius kept up the girls’ morale, and Volungevičiūtė gained experience and, over time, honed her skills as a sailor.

“He was like a father to us,” she says. “We’d come back from a race exhausted, and he would have a hot dinner cooked and waiting for us. He took care of us.”

Many things at once

“Sailing is about keeping track of a thousand details at once,” says Volungevičiūtė.

“But even more than that, it is about following your intuition. Sometimes you’re in a race and you see the leader go off in one direction. Then all the other girls will immediately follow. But I just listen to my own inner voice, and I go my way. That’s how I win.”

Despite her obvious self-confidence, Volungevičiūtė, whose first name means “amber” in Lithuanian, admits that she had an amber talisman to help her through the challenges of the Olympics.

“I wear a white amber sphere with a hole in it on a string around my neck,” she says. “When I need luck, I rub it.”

The silver couple

As it turned out, the silver medal was not the only piece of metal the young sailor brought back from Beijing. She brought back a gold engagement ring as well.

Robert Scheidt, Brazil’s most successful sailor and Olympic athlete, and one of the world’s most decorated Laser sailors, a winner of two Olympic gold medals and two Olympic silver medals, popped the question immediately after the end of the race that won him his Olympic silver in men’s sailing.

The proposal caught Volungevičiūtė off guard, but she accepted without hesitation.

“We both realised that we couldn’t stand being away from each other,” she admits, adding: “We both love children, and knew we wanted to have a family.”

They plan to live a life balanced between family and competitive sailing.

The couple met a year ago in a pre-Olympic race, and quickly fell in love. They maintained contact by Skype and email when they were away from each other, and visited each other’s countries.

“Robert helped me see that I had it in me to win an Olympic medal. He told me I was strong, and he encouraged me.”

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