Within minutes of landing – after flying halfway around the world – Ugne Mazutaityte began bawling.
She was tired and scared, didn’t know what to expect as a new Fresno State recruit and resident of the Central Valley, and already felt homesick.
Why did she go so far, she thought to herself, to a place she’d never heard of?
Worse yet, the airline lost her luggage during the 28-hour trip that started from her home country, Lithuania.
Mazutaityte dreaded starting this new stage of life and her swimming career without her family photos, and the expensive but lucky racing suit she wore in competitions.
“My whole life was in there,” Mazutaityte said. “I came to Fresno homeless.”
But just as her tears eventually dried and her luggage resurfaced the next day, too, Mazutaityte’s fears of living in Fresno and swimming for Fresno State faded in time.
Everything would turn out just fine.
What happened in the months ahead helped transform a talented but once-uninspired swimmer into a record-setting backstroker with dreams of qualifying for the upcoming Summer Olympics.
Ugne Mazutaityte can become the first Fresno State athlete to reach the Olympics in the middle of a college career since softball player Robin Mackin represented Canada in the 2008 Olympics.
If Mazutaityte makes it to Rio de Janeiro as a member of the Lithuanian national swimming and diving team, she would be the first Fresno State student to participate in the Olympics since softball player Robin Mackin represented Canada in 2008.
Mazutaityte already met the Olympic B-cut qualifying time that puts her in the running for a spot in the games in the 200-meter backstroke.
She’ll need to shave off almost 3 seconds to reach the A-cut time that’ll ensure a berth with Team Lithuania.
Three seconds can be an eternity in swimming. But as Mazutaityte has shown as a freshman, big strides and lofty goals always seem to be within reach.
“It’s a lot of time,” Fresno State swimming and diving coach Jeanne Fleck said. “But she’s capable of coming really close to that time.
“She’s already been better than we ever anticipated coming in. She just has to keep pushing her limits.”
Mazutaityte listens to every word and makes adjustments with any piece of wisdom Fleck provides.
In seven prior seasons since rebooting the school’s swimming and diving program in 2008, Fleck’s Bulldogs have never finished better than sixth in the conference championships.
But Mazutaityte quickly built trust in Fleck after the veteran coach of 17 years made her first international in-home visit to recruit the backstroke specialist.
Mazutaityte, like many talented foreign swimmers, long envisioned swimming in the United States, where she would not only face stronger competition but also earn a college degree.
Mazutaityte emailed several coaches at West Coast universities with hopes of garnering interest.
Fleck saw the email, verified Mazutaityte’s swim times and knew what she had to do.
She’s a game changer ... . I decided I’m not going to wait for her to come visit Fresno. I’m going to Lithuania.
Fresno State swimming and diving coach Jeanne Fleck on recruiting Ugne Mazutaityte
“She’s a game-changer, and I knew one of our rivals, San Diego State, also wanted her,” said Fleck, who had spoken to Mazutaityte a few times via Skype.
“We had some money left in our travel budget. So I decided I’m not going to wait for her to come visit Fresno. I’m going to Lithuania.”
A former Soviet bloc nation that declared its independence in 1990, Lithuania is a Baltic country in eastern Europe that is bordered by Poland, Latvia and Belarus. The country’s population is roughly 3 million.
There, Fleck met many of Mazutaityte’s relatives and discovered she came from a family of coaches.
Both of Mazutaityte’s parents are swimming coaches, as were her grandparents.
Mazutaityte’s father, Sarunas, headed the Lithuanian team that competed in the 2000 Olympics.
In Fleck’s eyes, Mazutaityte had to become a Bulldog.
Mazutaityte was already sold.
“I was so flattered she came all that way,” Mazutaityte said. “That’s never happened to any of my friends. And I always wanted to come to California.”
Though homesick upon her arrival, Mazutaityte said she’s felt at home at Fresno State. Teammates showed up the airport to greet her and have continued to show support.
Fellow dorm residents turned into friends after offering blankets, pillows and clothing when Mazutaityte arrived without her belongings.
Acclimating quickly to college life, Mazutaityte then found a renewed dedication to swimming.
She had become bored with the sport back in Lithuania, partly because she was rarely challenged.
But at Fresno State, the competition was fierce.
Teammates’ cheers motivated her further. And her coach kept challenging her.
“She’s been very coachable,” Fleck said. “She was doing things she’d never done before and saw it was working.”
2 minutes, 13.19 seconds Ugne Mazutaityte’s Lithuanian record in the 200-meter backstroke, set in December. She owned the previous mark at 2:14.08
Then at the Winter National Championships last month in Federal Way, Wash., Mazutaityte broke the Lithuanian national record in the 100-meter backstroke, finishing in 1 minute, 1.89 seconds. She outswam her previous best by 2 seconds.
The next day, Mazutaityte surpassed a 200 backstroke record she achieved in 2012 but hadn’t approached since.
Mazutaityte clocked out in 2:13.19 – and topped the B-cut Olympic qualifying mark of 2:15.17. The A cutoff is 2:10.60.
Making the B cut gives Mazutaityte “a 50-50 chance” of making the Olympic team, she said.
Reaching the A cut will guarantee it, Mazutaityte said, recounting an agreement she said she has with the Lithuanian swimming federation.
“I just have to make the A cut and I’m golden,” Mazutaityte excitedly said. “It’s going to be tough. But this is my dream.
“Being in Fresno is helping me get there.”
Ugne Mazutaityte file
- Pronunciation: OOG-nuh mah-joo-TY-tee-tuh
- Year: Freshman
- Height: 5 feet, 10 inches
- From: Kaunas, Lithuania
- Accolades: Lithuanian record holder in the 100 and 200-meter backstroke
Fresno State vs. Cal State Bakersfield
- Sunday: Noon at Fresno State Aquatics Center
- Records: Fresno State 4-1, Cal State Bakersfield 1-3
- Bulldogs swimmers of note: Ugne Mazutaityte (100 and 200 backstroke), Esme Gullick (100 and 200 butterfly)