LONDON — Matt Hopkins capped off his Thursday night enjoying a beverage at a pub called King Henry VII just outside the Olympic Park while watching the United States' men's basketball team throttle Nigeria by 83 points.
"We're having the time of our lives right now," the former Champaign Central boys' swimming coach said. "It's an amazing experience."
And amazing as his time at King Henry VII was, it paled in comparison to the joy Hopkins felt earlier in the evening while watching his prized former Maroons pupil Tyler McGill swim his way into the Olympic finals of the 100-meter butterfly at the Aquatics Centre.
McGill, who won the bronze medal in the event at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, touched the wall in 51.61 seconds in the semifinal. The time was faster than his preliminary time of 51.95 earlier in the day and was third to fellow American Michael Phelps (50.86) and South African Chad le Clos (51.42).
"It's just amazing to be in there, it's such a different environment," Hopkins said. "I've been to Illinois games and I've been to Cardinals baseball games and Bears football games. I've been the home team and the away team, and it's just a different experience when you go in there and all these people are cheering for their country. It's just unlike anything I've ever seen. It's so fun to chant 'USA, USA' and to be there and be a part of that. To get to see Tyler swim is just an added bonus for me."
McGill's mom, Susan, took in the action, too, inside a frenzied Aquatics Centre for Thursday morning's preliminary swim and the evening semifinal.
"It was truly amazing for all of us to be there and watch Tyler," Susan McGill said. "The crowd was very energetic and loud, especially the USA crowd. We are excited about tomorrow night."
McGill is trying to become the first area product to medal in the Summer Olympics since Bill Mulliken, a Champaign High grad who won gold in the 200 breaststroke in 1960 in Rome.
Mulliken, now 72 and living in Chicago, has followed McGill's career and is friends with the swimmer's father, Jeff.
Today, McGill's greatest challenge might occur before the race, Mulliken said.
"In the ready room, that's where they try to psyche you out," he said.
In 1960, Mulliken was approached by Australian swimmer Terry Gathercole, a medal contender in the 200 breast.
"He told me, 'It's a bloody shame that you work your (butt) off for four years and it comes down to four minutes.' That told me he was worried about me," Mulliken said.
Gathercole finished sixth, almost three seconds behind Mulliken.
"(Tyler) just needs to relax," Mulliken said.
Hopkins has watched McGill swim at the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., and now at the London Games. He's quick to note that McGill's time of 51.61 is 0.4 second slower than his personal-best time in the 100 butterfly.
"This morning, he was out fast, and it looked like he relaxed on the second 50 (meters). Tonight, he was swimming really fast, and he was breathing a lot at the end of the race. At the Trials, he didn't breathe at all for the last 15 meters. With that alone, I'm hoping he can swim a faster time," Hopkins said. "He has room to improve on his own. There's no way to control what's going to happen with all the other swimmers. If Tyler swims a lifetime best, then hopefully that's going to be good enough for a medal.
"He's got another gear, I think, so we're looking for him to swim faster."
The 24-year-old McGill will have two opportunities to medal today. He's swimming the butterfly leg of the United States' 400-meter medley relay during the prelims at 5:49 a.m.
Phelps is scheduled to replace McGill in the final, but McGill also would receive a medal should the U.S. team earn one in an event in which it will be heavily favored.
The 1:38 p.m. 100 butterfly final won't be shown live on NBC but will be shown via tape delay during the network's prime-time block of programming from 7 to 11 p.m. Pia's Bar & Grill will air the BBC feed live.
McGill is the first of two Champaign products vying for medals at the 2012 Games. Gia Lewis-Smallwood, a 1997 Centennial graduate, begins her quest today in the preliminaries of the discus at 2:35 p.m.
At the Stephens Family YMCA in Champaign, business has been brisk for "I Heart Tyler McGill" T-shirts being sold. The Y ordered 72, and only a handful remain.
After constant clapping and scattered cheering during McGill's semifinal heat, the crowd of about 40 McGill supporters at Pia's erupted into a wild cheer when their favorite swimmer touched the wall second to le Clos.
"He's got the heart, and he's got the kick. We're behind him," uncle Kevin McGill said.
Another uncle, Mike Tennant, likes McGill's assignment in Lane 3.
"He's got a good lane slot, and he'll be right on Phelps' shoulder and that's good for him," Tennant said.
McGill's Olympics roommate Tyler Clary unexpectedly won gold in the 200 backstroke Thursday. The two have formed a bond, and McGill is hoping he can hold up his end and add to his room's medal count.
"There's been this 'Team Tyler' thing going on between those two guys," Hopkins said. "It's fun to watch."