BEIJING -- Michael Phelps was in trouble.
Churning desperately to the wall in the 100-meter butterfly Saturday, chasing Milorad Cavic and a historic seventh gold medal in these Olympics, Phelps was in that worst of all places for a butterflyer approaching the finish:
No man's land.
His strokes had not timed out in this most rhythmic of all swimming disciplines, and now Phelps was left with two bad alternatives.
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?
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.
The immense historical achievement of tying Mark Spitz's Olympic record for most gold medals in a single Games suddenly was an afterthought. The breathtakingly dramatic nature of this single race obscured everything else.
By sleight of hand, or length of arm, or force of will, Phelps won again. The quest for the great eight was kept alive by a great escape. Just when the story couldn't get any better, it did. The Phelps phenomenon soars onward, seemingly without limit.
"It seems like every day I'm in sort of a dream world," Phelps said. "I have to pinch myself to make sure it's real. I'm just happy to be in the real world."
It's his world; we're all just cheering in it. Except for those who were booing, gasping, roaring and rattling the Water Cube with conflicting emotion after this impossibly dramatic race.
Phelps, who had anxiously whipped off his goggles to see the board, jubilantly pounded the water with his fist. As the waves exploded in halos around him, Phelps reprised the primal howl he loosed during his previous great escape in these Games, when the 400 freestyle relay team won by 0.07 of a second.
Who knew that unforgettable race would end up looking like a blowout?
Who knew that a mistimed finish would actually work? Who knew it was the chop of a champion that saved the day and maintained the quest?
"When I did chop the last stroke, I thought it cost me the race," Phelps said. "But it turned out to be exactly opposite. If I would've glided, it would have been way too long."
He made the right choice, somehow manufacturing a "short, fast stroke" to the wall. Cavic was no more than a foot from touching when Phelps still had his hands in the water. His recovery and reach were frantically fast.
Cavic stretched out, fully extended, hands grazing the wall below the water's surface. Phelps hammered the wall at water's edge. Those high-low butterfly finishes are the hardest for fans to judge -- and the judgment in the Cube was nearly universal.
"I thought Cavic won," fumed Serbian journalist Dejan Stevovic of Sportski Zurnal. "It was obvious."
"But he doesn't have $50 million in sponsors, like that guy," grumbled another Serb.
A world record was set for fastest hatching of a conspiracy theory. The greedy Americans were winning again, and cheating to make sure.
Never mind that there was no conceivable way to cook the timing of a bang-bang finish that displays instant results -- people wanted to believe the race was fixed. Or at least that the touch pads were faulty.
So the Serbs filed a written protest with FINA, the governing body of swimming. The Omega timing system had the same times on both its standard and backup apparatus. Referee Ben Ekumbo of Kenya then reviewed super-slow-motion replays of the finish and rejected the protest.
"It was very clear that the Serbian swimmer touched second after Michael Phelps," Ekumbo said.
To mollify the Serb contingent, Ekumbo showed them the video after the morning events were done.
"The Serbian team was very satisfied," Ekumbo said.
End of conspiracy. There are no grassy knolls at the Water Cube.
Cavic, after blowing through the mixed zone without commenting, was later gracious in defeat. He was asked how it felt to beat Michael Phelps.
"I didn't beat Phelps," he said. "Perhaps I was the only guy at this competition who had a real shot at beating Phelps one-on-one."
He was asked whether Serbia should proceed with its protest.
"I would just drop the protest," he said. "I'm stoked with what happened. I'm very, very happy."
He should be. Cavic just etched his name into sporting history in defeat.
The former Cal swimmer told ESPN.com the day before that he believed it would be good for swimming if Phelps lost (comments Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, made sure to show his superstar over breakfast). And by golly, Cavic hoped he was just the guy to do it.
"I feel like this is my time to do something," Cavic said 24 hours before the final. "This is my moment in life."
Talk about prescience. In becoming a footnote to the Phelps story, Milorad Cavic, whose parents fled the then-Communist Yugoslavia in the early 1980s for America, elevated himself from obscurity and further ennobled what Phelps is doing.
Until this race, Phelps had crushed all comers in Beijing. The only heart-stopping moment was the 400 free relay, but that was a team endeavor. Nobody seemed capable of taking individual gold away from the greatest swimmer of all time. Nobody seemed capable of pushing Phelps to the outer limits of his unparalleled talent and will. Certainly not a guy whose two previous Olympic appearances had ended in humbling pratfalls.
But just as Tiger Woods had Rocco Mediate materialize as an unlikely adversary pushing him to greatness, Michael Phelps had Milorad Cavic. Phelps literally had to go to the wall to beat him.
That's a good thing -- a truly Olympian feat should tax a champion to his fullest. If it had all somehow seemed too easy for Phelps in Beijing, it certainly doesn't now. Phelps got to seven the hard way.
"It is a frightening thing to face Michael Phelps," Cavic said. "And a very frightening thing to know it's going to be close."
But Cavic did a remarkable thing with his fear -- he turned it into bravado. He appeared to play mind games with Phelps before the start, attempting to intimidate the intimidator.
Before every race, Phelps stands on the left side of the starting block with his right foot on the block. For this race, he was in Lane 5. In adjacent Lane 4, Cavic mirrored Phelps -- he stood to the right of his block with his left foot up, staring straight at the baddest man in the water.
"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.