|ESPN.com: Summer 2008||[Print without images]|
He could ride his last full stroke to the wall -- gliding in.
Or he could recoil and throw his arms forward one more time -- chopping the wall, as they say in swimming. Either way, you usually lose an airtight butterfly race with a mistimed finish. Unless you're Michael Phelps. Who never loses. Even when the naked eye tricks you into believing he did. The naked eye said he lost. The naked eye said the bid to win eight gold medals had stopped in a stunning upset at the hands of Cavic -- a previously anonymous Californian swimming for Serbia, and doing a splendid impersonation of Buster Douglas in a Speedo. The naked eye said the most captivating Olympic story line since the Miracle on Ice had been scuttled. Do you believe in heartbreak? No. Believe in The Closer, the guy who now has won the gold in this event twice, in back-to-back Olympics, by a combined five-hundredths of a second. Believe in Phelps. Don't ask how he does it, because sometimes there are no rational explanations. Just believe. The scoreboard showed a result that shocked everyone in the Water Cube, and probably most of the rest of planet Earth. Phelps had done it, by the smallest unit of measurement in swimming -- a single hundredth of a second.
|Michael Phelps will now try for his eighth gold medal of these Games in Sunday's 4x100 medley relay.|
|Michael Phelps, front, trailed Milorad Cavic, back, for most of Saturday's race.|
"I definitely wasn't staring him down," Cavic said, unconvincingly. "I was just trying to control my energy. Both of us have metallic goggles, so I couldn't see his eyes and he couldn't see mine. Maybe he saw his reflection in my goggles and said, 'Hey, I look pretty good.'" Or maybe Phelps looked at Cavic and said, "Wow, this guy isn't afraid." Or, "Man, I'm tired." When the tone sounded and the eight men dove in, it was immediately evident Phelps was in for his toughest race of the Games against a guy having the race of his life. Phelps had wanted to keep it close for the first 50 meters -- he's not a sprinter, so he had to maintain contact in the shortest of his individual races here in Beijing. His goal was to break 24 seconds in the first 50. His time: 24.04. The scoreboard flashed the alarming situation -- Phelps was in seventh, 0.62 of a second behind the streaking Cavic. This was a crisis. But Phelps has a ferocious final 50 in this event, and there's nothing to spur a man onward like good, old-fashioned panic. There was no choice. It was either fly like a madman or wear silver. With each undulation through the water, Phelps gained on Cavic. At last, he pulled even, but Cavic refused to fold. The foregone conclusion was suddenly speeding toward a different conclusion altogether. With the Cube drenched in tension, they came into the final meters in a virtual dead heat. Was Cavic inching ahead? Could Phelps catch him? Has the Olympics ever seen this much suspense? As it did in Athens in 2004, it would all come down to the touch. Phelps had somehow snuck past countryman Ian Crocker then, beating him by 0.04 of a second. But Phelps had hit that finish perfectly, his strokes timing out for a textbook extension that wasn't a glide. This time in Beijing, he wasn't so lucky. This time he was in no man's land. Forced to make a tough decision on the (butter)fly, Phelps reacted flawlessly. He somehow got his hands on the wall first. "He's always able to get it done in the final meters," said bronze medalist Andrew Lauterstein of Australia. In the end, a depleted Phelps said he was "relieved, excited, a little bit of everything." He must now summon the energy for one more race, 100 more meters of butterfly, in concert with his medley relay teammates. And Cavic can walk around Beijing a proud man. What he did was indeed good for the sport, even if he didn't defeat the golden god of swimming. "I think if we got to do this again," Cavic said, "I would win it." But there are no do-overs in the Olympics. And no beating Michael Phelps, no matter how close it gets. Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.