Imagine how extraordinarily talented you would need to be to be the fourth best in the world at whatever it is you do, how it would feel if you absolutely knew that, in a population of almost eight billion people, there were only three who better than you.
Andrew Willis doesn’t have to imagine, he knows exactly what it feels like. Awful. On Wednesday night Willis, 25, finished fourth in the Olympic 200m breaststroke final. In 2015 he finished fourth in the same event at the World Championships in Kazan. In 2014 he was fourth at the European Championships in Berlin. And in 2013, when he swam at the World Championships in Barcelona, he was – you’ll never guess – fourth again.
Willis was 0.09sec away from winning bronze. According to the Harvard database of useful biological numbers, that’s just a little less time than it takes to blink your eye. “It’s nothing at all,” Willis said after the race. “And that’s what makes it so much harder.”
There was only half a second between the first seven men. Willis, in lane five, knew he was in contention when he touched the wall. The race had gone pretty much as he wanted it to. He hadn’t panicked when the man in lane six, Japan’s Yashiro Koseki went out hard, through the first 100m in world record pace.
Instead Willis had tracked Koseki’s team-mate, Ippei Watanabe, in lane four. Which was wise, because Watanabe had broken the Olympic record in the semis. Problem was, as Willis realised when he turned his head and saw the times on the big screen, all the action was happening in the outside lanes. The winner, Kazakhstan’s Dmitriy Balandin, was swimming in lane eight. The silver medalist, the USA’s Josh Prenot, in lane three. And the bronze medalist, Russia’s Anton Chupkov, in lane seven.
Willis admitted that he was gutted, but tried to take consolation wherever he could find it. “When I do finish swimming,” he said, “four will be my lucky number.”
Willis’ British team-mate Duncan Scott, 19, was one further back, fifth in the 100m freestyle, which was won by Australia’s Kyle Chalmers in 47.58sec. And Chloe Tutton and Molly Renshaw both made it through to the final of the women’s 200m breaststroke, where they will be swimming against Yulia Efimova.
Lilly King didn’t make the cut, so if either of the British women does have more luck than Willis did, at least they know they won’t have to endure another excruciatingly awkward press conference like the one we were treated to on Monday night.
This article was written by Andy Bull at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, for theguardian.com on Thursday 11th August 2016 04.16 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010