BEIJING—So much history can be decided by fractions of a second in swimming. But never in the history of the sport has so much been at stake with so little time as there was today in the 100-meter butterfly.
Michael Phelps should not have won. It looked, from every angle, like he did not win.
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In what will almost certainly go down as the most dramatic -- and perhaps most controversial -- race of Phelps' career, the Rodgers Forge native out-touched Serbia's Milorad Cavic to win his seventh gold medal. He matched Mark Spitz's 36-year-old record for most gold medals in a single Olympic Games.
It literally could not have been closer. Even Phelps was unsure if he had lost the race as he took his final stroke.
Officially, Phelps got his fingertips on the touch-pad in 50.58 seconds, and Cavic touched in 50.59. After a protest by Serbian coaches, officials of FINA, the international swimming federation, took a replay of the backup video and slowed it down to the 10,000th of a second.
A few frames -- according to Mark Schubert, director of USA Swimming -- showed Phelps getting his hand on the wall first. Serbian team officials, according to FINA, were satisfied with the judges' conclusion.
"The timing system says it all. There hasn't really been an error with the timing system. I raced as hard as I could and the scoreboard said I got my hand on the wall first," Phelps said.
Phelps had to whip off his goggles to see the scoreboard after he touched the wall, and when he saw first place next to his name, the 23-year-old pumped his fist and let loose a primal yell.
"It just shows you anything's possible," said Phelps, who earned a $1 million bonus from Speedo by tying Spitz's mark. "When you're really focused on your dream, anything is possible. I saw so many quotes saying it's impossible, it won't happen. It shows you."
Phelps has now won 13 gold medals in his career, the most of all time. He has one event remaining -- the 400 medley relay. He's already the only man to ever win five individual events in one Games.
After Phelps' 100 butterfly win, he appeared on NBC with Spitz, who was in Detroit. Spitz said it was "a tribute to Phelps' greatness" that he tied his record and will likely surpass it with one race remaining.
"I'm proud of you. America is proud of you," Spitz said. "He's the best Olympian of all time, not just in the pool but in the way he's handled himself."
Cavic -- who grew up in Orange County, Calif., and has dual citizenship with the United States and Serbia because both his parents are Serbian -- seemed to be at peace with the result an hour after the race. He initially stormed out of the pool and refused to answer questions.
"I know I had a long finish, and Michael Phelps had a short finish," Cavic said. "I'm not angry. I'm not angry at all. Technology is also imperfect. It's possible [I won]. It was just a crazy finish. It's too bad we couldn't have both finished at 50.58. I would have loved to share that gold medal. ... I think if we got to do this again, I would win."
Cavic probably didn't do himself any favors yesterday with some candid pre-race comments, suggesting that it might be good for swimming if Phelps lost a race.
"I think it would be good for the sport," Cavic said then. "And I think it would be good for him if he lost once. Just once."
That was all the motivation Phelps needed. With such a tiny fraction of time separating the two swimmers, it might have even been the difference.
"When I heard that Milorad said it would be good for swimming if I lost, it fired me up more than anything," Phelps said.
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman -- who trains race horses in his spare time and plans to do it full time one day -- has often equated winning seven gold medals with winning the Triple Crown. It's so hard because fresh horses -- whether it's a sprinter or a distance specialist -- are always lining up against you, dreaming of taking you down.
Cavic, Australia's Andrew Lauterstein and American Ian Crocker -- the world record holder and silver medalist in Athens -- were fresh, competing in just one individual event these Olympics. Lauterstein finished third. Crocker was never really in the race, finishing fourth, but he was thrilled with Phelps' win.
"I know Cavic pretty well, and I know Phelps pretty well, and I like Cavic, but if he had won I would have been pissed," Crocker said. "I said congratulations to Michael, which doesn't really cut it for the week he's had. What do you say to that? Shake his hand and shake your head and wonder if anyone will ever come close to doing that again. Not in my lifetime."
The butterfly is the one event Phelps wanted at these Olympic Games more than any other, considering it's the one individual event in which he doesn't own the world record. He didn't quite break Crocker's mark of 50.40 seconds, the only time this week he has swum without breaking a world record, but it certainly didn't matter to him after the race.
"I felt a little bit of everything," Phelps said. "Relief, excitement, everything. ... When I saw the [first] next to my name, that's when I sort of let our my roar."