One one-hundredth of a second. That's a hair-splittingly short amount of time — faster even than an eyeblink. But it's enough to win Olympic gold, and for Michael Phelps, it meant medal No. 7. By out-touching Serbia's Milorad Cavic in the 100m butterfly on Saturday, Phelps now ties with Mark Spitz as owning the most gold medals from a single Games. He might break that record tomorrow, when he swims the 4x100m medley relay, but for now, he and the 1972 Games champ Spitz stand shoulder to shoulder as the most impressive swimmers in Olympic history.
Think that's a big deal? You and everyone else. Except, that is, for Phelps himself, who continues to downplay the significance of what he has achieved in Beijing — seven medals, six world records, and one more to go. "It shows that no matter what you set your mind to, anything can happen," Phelps said with his typical lack of emotion when asked about matching Spitz. "I saw so many quotes saying it's impossible to duplicate, that it won't happen. But Bob [Bowman, Phelps' coach] is the one who helped me to really dream about anything. Bob and I have gone through a lot together, and it's all paid off."
It almost didn't, when the close finish prompted the Serbian team to file a protest. From above the water, it looked as if Cavic slid to the wall first, while Phelps was still completing his last, chopped stroke to propel himself to the finish. Each time the last seconds of the race replayed on the screen inside the Cube, Serbian athletes and coaches pointed, outraged, at what looked like an obvious first-place win for Cavic. Super slow motion video, however, captured by the official Olympic timing system by Omega, showed without a doubt that Phelps had touched first. "We made a review of the video footage," said Ben Ekumbo, the race referee. "It was very clear that the Serbian swimmer touched second after Michael Phelps." In order to dispel any doubts, however, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) also took the unusual step of allowing the Serbian officials to view the footage for themselves. "We didn't want them to go [to] sleep feeling like something was lost and they didn't have a chance," Ekumbo said. "Although the rules don't allow [for team officials] to watch video footage, we did give them the opportunity to see for themselves after the competition. The Serbian team was very satisfied, and agreed with the decision by the referee."
The 100m butterfly is always the closest individual race in Phelps' repertoire. In Athens, he barely beat out teammate Ian Crocker, winning by .04 second. (Crocker finished fourth — .55 seconds behind Phelps — on Saturday.) That time, it was Phelps who streaked to the wall while still underwater, as Crocker remained airborne. But in an instinctive split-second decision this time around, Phelps made the right one to come up before his touch. "When I did chop that last stroke I really thought it cost me the race," he said. "I ended up making the right decision. Trying to take a short fast stroke to try to get my hand on the wall first turned out to be in my favor." His coach agreed. "In that situation, it's the lesser of two evils — either you're going to glide or take half a stroke," said Bowman. "He did a much better job taking half a stroke."
And that decision couldn't have come any sooner. "One one hundreth of a second is the smallest margin of victory in our sport," Phelps said with a grin. "It's pretty cool. That's all I can say." For his part, Cavic was philosophical. "It's a complete miracle to me that I am here," he said. "I retired a year and a half ago, so I'm enjoying this moment from my heart. I know I had a long finish and Michael Phelps had a short finish. I'm not angry at all."
No need to be, when you come in second to the world's best swimmer. And if Phelps and the U.S. medley relay can beat the Australians on Sunday, that title might change to not just the world's best swimmer, but history's best swimmer — ever.