– Former Gopher Ben Blankenship qualified for the Olympic final in the 1,500 meters on Thursday night at Olympic Stadium, finishing fourth in his heat in the semifinals.

He finished in 3 minutes, 39.99 seconds after flirting with and sometimes taking the lead throughout the race.

On the backstretch of the last lap, he saw an opening on the inside lane and surged to the front, then held on during a furious final sprint for the leaders.

“It was good,’’ the Stillwater native said. “I kind of executed my plan. … I’m a strong guy, so I’ve never really feared leading. It works to my strength.’’

Blankenship, making his Olympic debut, said he felt sluggish during the qualifying heats but said he felt better on Thursday.

Blankenship’s expectations for Saturday night’s final? “Have fun,’’ he said. “Everything else has been really stressful, so hopefully I’ll come into the final and have some fun.’’

Jim Souhan