Simonas Bilis was the reason I went to swimming for the first time last night, the N.C. State swimmer competing in the 50 freestyle semifinals. Not only did Bilis swim the race of his life to qualify for the final, I saw a lot more than that in a crazy night of history in the pool.
At the Olympics, some sports are more equal than others, and a few have “major league” status: track, swimming, gymnastics and, lately, beach volleyball. While an Olympic credential will get you in the doors just about everywhere, you need a special ticket to get into swimming. Because of other events on my schedule, this was really the first chance I had to request a ticket and get over to swimming, and with Bilis swimming, it made sense to go.
The swimming venue is very nice, except for the four giant, round, steel columns in the corners that each block an entire section of seats – apparently a cost-cutting deviation from the original plans that required leaving four corner sections completely empty. Still, the atmosphere was intense with not only Michael Phelps but several beloved Brazilians swimming.
The 50 free semis were the first races of the night – and it starts late here, at 10 p.m. Brazil time – with Bilis in the second heat. After barely qualifying, he was in lane 8, at the bottom of the pool. He got off to a good start and, at one point about two-thirds of the way down the pool, looked like he might have a chance to win. He ended up tied for fourth in his heat, tied for sixth overall, into Friday night's final.
After talking with Bilis under the stands, missing a few races, I was back in the media seating in time to see Ryan Murphy receive his gold – my first American medal ceremony of the Olympics – and Phelps and Ryan Lochte swim against each other the 200 IM for the last time. Phelps was trailing the Brazilian hero Thiago Pereira after the butterfly, but caught up in the breaststroke and put the field away in the freestyle. Lochte finished fifth, and seemed neither angry or frustrated afterward, only resigned to his fate, like many who have been competing against Phelps for four Olympics.
“I was right there,” Lochte said. “I gave it my all. It just wasn't enough.”
While downstairs, after listening to Lochte, I watched the women's 100 freestyle on a TV in the media area with most of the other American swimming writers. At first, no one knew what happened because the TV indicated “OR” – Olympic record – for Simone Manuel and “1” for Canadian teen Penny Oleksiak, a dead heat for gold.
Manuel, the first African-American female swimmer to win gold, was still overjoyed when she appeared very quickly afterward, and had no trouble putting a sense of perspective on her achievement.
“The gold medal wasn't just for me,” she said. “It was for the people who came before me who inspired me.”
I watched Phelps swim his fly semifinal on the TV and then left for the night, a witness to history in the pool. If I only make one night of swimming, and it's uncertain whether I'll be able to get back in tonight, it was a good one to see.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock