Visually-impaired Lithuanian-born Irish student is on the road to Rio
DCU student Greta Streimikyte hopes to make Irish Paralympic team for Rio
Greta Streimikyte with her family:‘You have to fight for your place in this world.’Photograph:Paul Sherwood
When Greta Streimikyte wore the green jersey for the first time at the IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Italy last month, it was an emotional occasion for her and for her family. And that wasn’t just because she won her race. Reaching this stage has involved some difficult decisions, including the relinquishment of her Lithuanian citizenship but, as Streimikyte says, her story is about “taking the opportunities given to you, and thanking the people who gave you those opportunities by doing your best”.
Streimikyte (20) lives with her family in Swords, Co Dublin, and is a student of international relations at Dublin City University (DCU). “Here at DCU, people treat me just like any other athlete. They know I’m hoping to qualify for the Paralympics in Rio this September, but I won’t know whether I’ve made the Irish team until July, so there is no point talking about it too loudly.”
Streimikyte started life in the city of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where she was born prematurely as 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.
Two operationsHer visual impairment is due to a condition called “retinopathy”, most likely caused by the incubator environment in which she was kept.
“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’.”
Streimikyte’s parents, Asta and Raimundas, struggled to accept this. “One day they got a call to say a well-known Swedish eye surgeon was visiting the hospital in Vilnius. 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 required was $5,000 (€4,400), a huge amount – equivalent, at the time, to the cost of an apartment in Vilnius – but Streimikyte’s parents were desperate to give her this chance.
Each day, her father visited companies that he hoped might make a donation. It was a demoralising, impossible task, but a last-minute appeal to the Lithuanian government secured the money for Streimikyte to travel to Sweden for surgery.
“Because of that operation, I now have some vision in my left eye. Okay, I might need someone to read me something, but I can do most things. I really can’t complain.”
As she was growing up, Streimikyte says her parents made a conscious effort to treat her like her brother and sister.
“My dad never stopped me climbing trees or riding a bike, but he was always there, watching me. I remember sitting on his lap while he let me have a go at driving the car, just like he’d done with Arnas and Emilija. If I did something wrong, he’d say, ‘Greta, be careful,’ but he allowed me to try. He gave me that space.”
In 2006 Streimikyte’s father moved to Ireland for work, leaving the family in Vilnius. “Like every person who leaves Lithuania, he started out thinking it would just be for a few months, then a few months became a year, then five years.
“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.”
Talent spottedIn 2010, her parents decided to move the family to Ireland. “It was very hard for them, because they had to leave their friends and family, and my mum had a good job, but they did it for us. They wanted to give the three of us – me in particular – a future.”
Streimikyte went to Rosmini Community School in Drumcondra and it was at an 800m race there that her talent was first noticed. “‘You could represent Ireland in the Paralympics,’ my PE teacher [Seán Gallagher] said to me. That was the first time I’d ever heard of the Paralympics because in Lithuania it’s only the Olympics that people talk about.”
Gallagher introduced her to a student teacher at the school, Eimear O’Brien. “Eimear offered to train with me and be my guide. She’d been to the Paralympics a few years before as a guide for another 1500m runner, so she knew what the standards were.”
Since then, O’Brien has run alongside Streimikyte in every race. “Eimear and I started to think seriously about the Rio Paralympics about three years ago, but we knew I needed a passport and I couldn’t even apply for one until I was five years in Ireland.”
Despite the uncertainty, Streimikyte’s commitment to training was unwavering. For several years, she has been running at least five miles a day, and last summer she intensified her regime under the guidance of coach Enda Fitzpatrick, director of DCU’s Athletics Academy, and a former record-holding middle distance track athlete.
“Greta is the easiest girl to coach,” says Fitzpatrick. “If I’m having a bad day, working with her gives me a lift. I’ve heard other athletes say it too. She is so mannerly and upbeat – always on time, always working hard, and never down in the dumps about the challenges she faces.”
Streimikyte’s current personal best in the 1500m is 4.57 minutes. She says: “Enda thinks I can do 4.50, but I’m aiming for 4.55 right now.”
Amazingly, Streimikyte has come this far without ever having competed internationally. “Living in Ireland but holding a Lithuanian passport, it wasn’t possible, but I’ve followed the Paralympians in my event online and I know their times. You have to know who your competition is globally. It makes you more competitive ... If they can run that time, I can do better.”
CompetitiveFor competition experience, Streimikyte has relied upon a handful of national events, as well as races with her local athletics club, Clonliffe Harriers. “I suppose when you love something the way I love running, you don’t need much external validation.
“When you run, it doesn’t matter that you are visually impaired. You forget everything. Stress. Nerves. Life gets easier. I’m also competitive by nature and part of it is about showing other people my ability. Just telling other people about your abilities doesn’t work.
“Sometimes people say to me ‘poor you’ when they realise how bad my sight is, but when they watch me run, and they see how fast I am, and how I move round obstacles, that attitude changes.”
Streimikyte submitted her application for an Irish passport last summer, exactly five years after arriving in Ireland.
“My mum was sad when I filled in the form, because it meant I would have to give up my Lithuanian citizenship and my parents still have a great love for their home country.” (Unlike Ireland, Lithuania does not allow its citizens to hold dual citizenship.)
“But in the end my mum understood that I made the decision that was right for me. I didn’t really have a chance of competing for Lithuania, and Ireland welcomed me with open arms.
“Over the years, so many Irish people – like my PE teacher, Eimear, Enda and my friends – have supported and encouraged me. They wanted me to compete for Ireland and that was so nice to hear.”
On December 14th, 2015, Streimikyte attended an official citizenship ceremony in Dublin.
Her passport followed by post in January. “We were all happy to see the passport because it had been a long journey for everyone in the family. But the biggest moment for me was when I had to fill out the Paralympics Ireland paperwork. The form said ‘Nationality?’ and for a second I hesitated. ‘Mum, am I Irish or Lithuanian? Or do I put both?’ ‘Just say Irish,’ my mum said.”
As part of the qualification process, Streimikyte has recently undergone a full medical and has also been required to change her running technique.
Fitzpatrick explains, “Greta has been used to running alongside her guide Eimear, but a new rule says that athletes must be ‘tethered’ to their guide. Greta isn’t used to this, so initially she’s going to try running alone.”
Green jerseyAs an official member of the Irish Paralympic Athlete Development Panel, Streimikyte now benefits from the full support offered by Paralympics Ireland. “They cover all the costs of the competition and physios, and James Nolan, their head of athletics, has been very helpful,” she says.
Streimikyte’s first international race was on April 9th at the IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Grossetto, Italy. Ahead of the event, Fitzpatrick said Streimikyte’s biggest challenge is pacing.
“How she runs that first lap is critical. She has to run with maturity. It’s tough when you think this is not only her first race of the season, but her first representing Ireland, and her first without a guide. But whatever time she gets is just a starting point – she’ll gain from there as the season progresses.”
It seems his concerns were unfounded and Streimikyte won her race with a time of 5.01. She went on to better that result and achieve the Paralympic entry standard on April 15th with a time of 4.56 at the IUAA Track and Field Championships in Santry Stadium.
“If Greta had got her passport a year earlier, she’d be ranked fifth or sixth in the world by now but the incredible thing is that those other girls don’t even know Greta is coming,” says Fitzpatrick.
For Streimikyte, it’s about getting to Rio. “I’m just going to run as fast as I can. The best way to thank my family and everyone who has supported me would be to win a medal at Rio. But I also want to win for myself. Maybe it’s something to do with being one of triplets, but I have always known that you have to fight for your place in this world. That’s true in sport and in life.
“You have to push yourself forward. If you are good at something, you shouldn’t waste it, and if you are given an opportunity, why wouldn’t you take it?”