Simonas Bilis figured his best chance to swim for a medal was in the 100-meter freestyle. He really never thought he would get that chance in the 50 free.
After putting a disappointing 30th-place finish in the 100 behind him, the two-time ACC male swimmer of the year at N.C. State swam the race of his life in the 50 semifinals on Thursday, qualifying sixth for the final with a personal-best time of 21.71.
“For me, top 16 was going to be really good, so just go for it,” Bilis said. “Then when I saw I was tied for sixth, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this just happened.’ ”
So the Lithuanian, already one of the greatest swimmers in Wolfpack history, will take on American stars Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin, not to mention the rest of the world, Friday night. Lithuania has only ever won one swimming medal.
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Bilis got off to a good start and was near the lead for most of the race, finishing tied for fourth, .25 seconds behind heat winner Andrii Govorov of Ukraine, improving an amazing .30 from his qualifying time Thursday morning.
“I said, ‘OK, we’re going to at least go under 22,’” Bilis said. “I didn’t expect to go 21.7, but I’m really happy I did. I can’t put into my words how happy I am to make it into the finals in the Olympics, individually. It’s just crazy, isn’t it?”
What was already an amazing year for Bilis somehow managed to get even better, one that saw him win the ACC championship in the 200 freestyle before finishing as the NCAA runner-up in the 50 and 100 free and in third place in the 200 free. He was also part of N.C. State’s NCAA champion 400 freestyle relay along with Olympic gold medalist Ryan Held.
“I’m really happy that he went to the podium,” Bilis said. “Of course, he looked kind of like a baby when he cried. Everybody loves it, so it was probably good.”
Bilis would have to make another quantum leap forward from semifinal to final if he’s going to medal. If he does, he may find his emotions a little tougher to control than he thinks right now.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock