Greta Streimikyte: The Vilnius woman who will represent Irish
WHEN Greta Streimikyte was growing up in Lithuania, little did she think that, one day, she would be representing Ireland in the Paralympics.
Everything has happened very quickly for the Swords resident, whose family came to Ireland five-years-ago seeking a new life.
Last December, she officially became an Irish citizen, collecting her certificate at a ceremony in Dublin’s Conference Centre.
Now, fresh from competing on the international stage for the first time, Streimikyte is counting down the hours until she steps on the track in Rio for the T13 1,500 metres.
However, the road to the Brazilian capital has been long, hard and not always plain sailing for the 21-year-old DCU student. Streimikyte was born prematurely in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, one of triplets, along with brother Arnas and sister Emilija.
“Each of us was small enough to be held in my mother’s palm,” she says.
Streimikyte's visual impairment is due to a condition called “retinopathy” and was most likely caused by the incubator environment in which she was kept.
She competes in the T13 category, the same as sprinter Jason Smyth, who has Stargardt’s disease.
“This left me with almost no vision. The doctors in Lithuania operated on me twice in an attempt to restore some vision, but neither operation was successful.
"After that, the doctors told my parents to get on with life: ‘You’re not the first parents to have a blind child’.”
Parents Asta and Raimundas found this hard to accept: “One day, they got a call to say a well-known Swedish eye surgeon was visiting the hospital in Vilnius,” Streimikyte adds.
“My parents brought me straight to her and she told them that, if they could raise the money to pay for an operation in Sweden, there might be hope of restoring some vision.”
The money needed for the operation was US$5,000 which, at that time, was the cost of an apartment in Vilnius. The Streimikytes were desperate to give her this chance and, every day, her father visited companies seeking donations.
But it took a last-minute appeal to the Lithuanian government to secure the money for Streimikyte to travel to Sweden for the surgery. Because of that operation, she now has some vision in her left eye. At times, she says she needs someone to read something for her, but she can do most things. She never complains.
In 2006, Streimikyte’s father moved to Ireland for work, leaving the family in Vilnius. Like most people who leave Lithuania, he thought it would just be for a few months. But months became years and then five years had passed.
While he was here alone, he started noticing things about attitudes to disability in Ireland and he began to feel there were more opportunities here, not just for Greta, but the whole family. In 2010, her parents decided to move the family to Ireland.
Streimikyte went to Rosmini Community School in Drumcondra and it was at an 800m race there that her talent was first noticed. Her PE teacher Seán Gallagher told her she could represent Ireland in the Paralympics. It was the first time she had heard of the Paralympics because, in Lithuania, "it was only the Olympics that people talked about”.
Gallagher introduced her to a student teacher at the school, who offered to train with her and be her guide. She had been to the Paralympics a few years before as a guide for another 1,500m runner, so she knew the standards and the pack drill.
Streimikyte joined Clonliffe Harriers before, two-years-ago, being accepted on an international relations course at DCU, where she came under the influence of the university’s head athletics coach Enda Fitzpatrick.
The relationship flourished and, in June, she represented Ireland for the first time, winning a bronze medal in the 1,500m at the IPC European Championships: "To be on the team now going to Rio is fantastic. I am lucky too, as I am surrounded by an amazing group of athletes with whom it is brilliant to train with,” Streimikyte said.
“I have met a brilliant coach and DCU, where I study, have also been very supportive as too has my running club and, of course, Paralympics Ireland.”
Her mother may have been able to cup Greta in her palms when she was born, but she will be more than a handful for the opposition in Rio.