The Essential Olympic Stories: Michael Phelps - bullet with butterfly wings
THE ESSENTIAL STORIES – From his lofty perch of 23 Olympic titles and 28 medals, Michael Phelps is unique. The swimmer dominated the Olympics like no other during his immense career, which reached its peak at the Beijing Games in 2008 when he turned a race that had been lost into a stunning victory, forever captured for eternity. Maxime Dupuis details his excellence.
Published 18/05/2021 at 06:56 GMT / Updated 18/05/2021 at 21:04 GMT
Michael Phelps - the bullet with butterfly wings who dominated the Olympics
The American went to China with one goal: a clean sweep of eight gold medals to eclipse the old record of his compatriot Mark Spitz. And, boy, did he do it. But it all came down to a tiny margin of 0.01 seconds, a mere half-flap of his butterfly wings.
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Michael Phelps never walked on water. Neither did he turn it into wine, multiply loaves of bread or restore sight to the blind. If you believe the books, these kinds of stunts haven't been pulled off for a couple of millennia. But during his life aquatic, Phelps managed to pull off a handful of miracles which would have earned him demi-god status in other eras. By 21st Century standards, we should simply judge him for what he was – the greatest Olympian of all time, perhaps even the most illustrious athlete in history. He was sure worth his weight in gold (medals).
In the absence of bread, the American methodically multiplied medals at a rate quite inconceivable for those watching on TV – perhaps even for those swimming in the same pool. But the most prodigious of the Baltimore swimmer's achievements came on one August day on the other side of the planet. That morning, Phelps turned a race that had been lost into a stunning victory, forever captured for eternity.
Had Phelps been beaten, he would still have been a great champion; the scope of his work already far exceeded the 100 metres that he had just completed. It would have simply "condemned" him to become, at best, the equal of another – in this case, Mark Spitz. Given that Phelps never really had an equal, that would have been a bitter pill to swallow.
Some have tried to rise to his heights, but with limited success. Standing on the shoulder of giants may give you a momentary clearer line of vision, but you cannot stay up there forever.
Cavic was faster, but not the stronger
Milorad Cavic was one of the few who bravely faced up to the beast. Despite standing 6 foot 5 inches and weighing close to 200 pounds, the strapping Serb was neither the biggest nor the most talented of opponents that Phelps encountered during his stellar career. But he will forever hold a special place in the defining moment of the American's journey to eight golds. For it was Cavic who made his rival fight all the way and almost ended his fantastic quest for Olympic immortality in Beijing's Water Cube arena. The destiny of both men played on a mere hundredth of a second. On August 16, 2008, Cavic was the fastest over two lengths. But he wasn't the strongest.
There's not much a human can do in one hundredth of a second. But in this miniscule space of time, 30 times faster than a blink of an eye, Phelps the aquatic alchemist managed to turn silver into gold in one unforgettable leap towards immortality. With a daring, extra half-stroke, the Baltimore bullet with butterfly wings drew level with compatriot Spitz, the seven-time Olympic champion from Munich 1972. Phelps would add the finishing touches to his irrepressible rise the next day, with a little help from his friends in the 4x100m medley relay. In one single edition of the Summer Games, he won eight gold medals for a unique record that set him apart from everyone.
To think that none of this may have happened had Mrs Phelps not been so concerned about the welfare of her children. "The only reason I ever got in the water was my mom wanted me to just learn how to swim. My sisters and myself fell in love with the sport, and we decided to swim," the world's greatest Olympian told Jimmy Fallon in an interview about water safety in 2016. Phelps had two elder sisters, Whitney and Hilary. To say that Whitney was a pretty talented swimmer was an understatement – for before Michael, it was all very much about her. Aged just 14, she competed in the World Championships in Rome, where she came ninth in the 200m butterfly. Such promise made her one of the big US hopes ahead of the Atlanta Games. But a back injury and an eating disorder deprived her of this chance and cut short her budding career.
A second father in Bob Bowman
When Whitney gave up on her dream, Michael was still a child. But he had already started to show his own qualities in the pool under the stewardship of Bob Bowman, who would be his lifelong trainer and a second father. His biological father, Fred, had walked out on the Phelps family when Michael was just nine years old.
Bob would provide a solid shoulder for the young man to lean on. Solid but firm. For Bob took no prisoners. If he asked for 10 lengths, he wanted 10 – not nine. The young Michael quickly realised that his trainer was not there to crack jokes but to shape the champion that he could see in the scrawny kid bouncing around the North Aquatic Baltimore Club. "If he asked me to show up at the top of the hour and I arrived at 5:01, he'd be at the front door to ask why. If I splashed a teammate when he wasn't looking, those eyes in the back of Bob's head would let him know, and he would be sure to let me know that he knew. Bob scared me," Phelps admits in his autobiography, Beneath the Surface.
Michael may have been afraid of Bob, but he still had trouble staying in line. It was as if there was something inside which caused him to make mischief and be the centre of attention. In the sixth grade, he was duly diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). His hyperactivity was treated with the drug Ritalin, which he took during the week to control himself. On Saturday, there was no point: he channelled his excess energy through sport. Baseball, football, lacrosse and, of course, swimming. But water had an additional quality: it calmed him down.
"Once I figured out how to swim, I felt so free. I could go fast in the pool, it turned out, in part because being in the pool slowed down my mind. In the water, I felt, for the first time, in control."
Out of the pool, Phelps returned to being a jumpy kid bogged down by his flaws, doubts and imperfections. The very same things which would mark his career and his life as a young adult. At school, Phelps was extremely self-conscious: his long limbs and big ears were the subject of ridicule and he frequently brawled with his fellow classmates.
But if he was not completely comfortable with his body, he had the perfect build for what he was destined to become: a swimmer like no other. He did not know it yet, but Phelps was in possession of exceptional intrinsic qualities in every sense of the word.
Phelps went on to grow to 1.93m as an adult and was built like a sturdy crossbow. In relation to his height, his torso was oversized and elongated – the equivalent to that of a man standing 2.03m – making his legs much shorter than average. This upper body to lower body ratio gave him less resistance in the water. His wingspan of just over two metres was just as vital as his gigantic hands, especially on that August morning in 2008 when he faced an inspired Cavic. Add to the mix his size 13 feet, an exaggerated flexibility, and a propensity to produce less lactic acid than the average swimmer, and in Phelps you had the perfect archetype of a man-fish.
But in swimming, nature and talent are never enough to make a champion. Practice and hard work are almost just as vital as the rest. And if the future champion occasionally had some troubles with this aspect of the hugely demanding sport, Bowman was responsible for converting man into machine. The day when he announced his ambitions to the mother of the future champion, she replied to him with a laconic: "But Bob, he's only 12." To which the coach simply replied: "I know, Debbie, but in 2008, for instance, he will be 23 and…"
The youngest competitor at the Olympics since 1932
If Bowman knew there was a star ready to stir inside Phelps, he may not have imagined it shooting out so quickly. For Phelps did not have to wait until 2008 and his 23rd birthday to put the world at his feet. Bowman worked in the short and long term, with different objectives. He had asked Phelps, when still only 11, to write his ambitions down on paper. He wrote that he wished, one day, to swim at the Olympics. Bowman was convinced that this was possible. Provided he gave his all. This was never in doubt. At the start of his career, Phelps was training 10 times a week, seven days in seven. Hours and hours were spent in the pool, including all of his free time outside of school. After all, you don't get anything for free.
His first breakout meet was the 1999 junior national championships in Orlando. The American remembers it like it was yesterday:
I made my first national cut at age 13.
"I didn't win any events, but I finished in the top four three times. I swam the 200 fly in 2:04, which was an astounding 10-second improvement from what I had done in training just six weeks earlier. I was a little bit disappointed to swim so well and not to win any titles," he admits in his book. Bowman was happy enough with what he saw. After all, it was rare for someone to win the juniors and go on to succeed at the next level.
He was right to keep his confidence. For one year later, a 15-year-old Phelps realised his dreams of performing at the Olympics. At Sydney the boy who had grown a further 10 centimetres in a year became the youngest American swimmer since Ralph Flanagan in 1932 to compete at such a level. He would leave the Australian Games without much fanfare – he finished fifth in the 200m butterfly – but that would all change.
At this point, it would be easy enough simply to list the myriad medals and international titles won by Phelps from 2001 after his first success at the Fukuoka Worlds. But for now, let's start with that victory, in the 200m butterfly. His time of 1.54:58 improved a world record he himself had held since March that year. Phelps was still only 15 years and nine months. Never had a world record holder been so young.
Michael Phelps of the U.S.A in action in the 200m Individual Medley during the U.S Olympic Swimming Trials at the Indiana University Natatorium on August 13, 2000 in Indianapolis, Indiana
Image credit: Getty Images
As many medals as India
From that first success in Japan until his definitive retirement in 2016, Phelps' hoard includes 33 World Championship medals (26 golds) and an astonishing 28 Olympic medals (23 gold, three silver and two bronze). In the history of the Games, nobody comes close. The Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina and her 18 medals comes a distant second. Even if you cast your net back to Leonidas of Rhodes, crowned 12 times Olympic champion in individual events between 164 and 152 BC, the famous ancient Olympic runner's tally is surpassed by the 13 solo crowns of Phelps.
If Phelps were a nation, he would be 58th in the historic medal table of all Summer Games – on a par with Colombia, Slovakia and India. The swimmer also accounts for 2.2% of all Olympic titles ever won by the United States since the modern Games launched in 1896. Four times in a row he was the most decorated athlete at the Games. From Athens to Rio, via Beijing and London, Phelps' Olympic campaigns were complete routs.
"I remember sitting with my agent when I was 15 or 16 years old, and I just said, 'I want to do something that nobody else has ever done in the sport,'" Phelps told Tony Robbins on the American life coach's podcast. '"I want to do something different. I don't want to be the second Mark Spitz. I want to be the first Michael Phelps."'
How did he go about doing what he'd set out to achieve? His first chance came at Athens in 2004 where he won six gold medals and – shock, horror – two bronzes (in the 200m freestyle and the 4x100m relay). No one's perfect after all, not least a 19-year-old rookie. Even if this represented the second-best medal tally for an individual swimmer at the Games – behind Spitz and his legendary moustache – the record was still there for the beating. Next up came Beijing. Speedo, Phelps' chief sponsor, added a bit of spice to the quest, buttering Phelps' spinach with the promise of a $1m bonus should he match Spitz. Or beat him.
The story of Michael Phelps’ 23 gold medals at the Olympics
To the moon or Mars
Phelps had notably won the 100m butterfly in Greece by just 0.04 seconds, defeating American teammate Ian Crocker (who held the world record in the event at the time). At Beijing, unsurprisingly, he wanted to do even better. Seven medals would be, in his words, "like being the second man on the moon". And eight, "the first man on Mars". Phelps then chose his planet: one that no human had ever stepped on before.
When the American landed in China, he held seven world titles from the previous summer in Melbourne. Seven victories achieved with six world records. He would swim the same seven events in Beijing, with the eighth and final piece of the jigsaw being the 4x100m medley. It was a tried and tested formula for Phelps – he now just needed to pull it off on the biggest stage.
His finals were scheduled at unusually early hours because NBC, the broadcaster of the Olympic Games in the United States, wanted a prime-time slot back home. The TV channel had asked permission from both the IOC and, of course, Phelps himself. Bowman's protégé began his quest with a pulsating performance in the 400m freestyle, winning with a new world record. After this, he teamed up with his pals for a thrilling 4x100m freestyle medley final – achieved after an unlikely comeback from Jason Lezak, as the Americans pipped the French by eight hundredths of a second.
The French quartet had come extremely close to nipping Phelps' hopes in the bud. Beginning the anchor leg more than half a body length behind Alain Bernard, Lezak produced the fastest relay leg in history (46.06) to beat the Frenchman, who had earlier boasted that his team "were going to smash the Americans". Sportingly, Phelps consoled a tearful Bernard, who bounced back to win the men's 100m freestyle. It was a close shave for Phelps, who must have had butterflies in his stomach watching that tense final leg. The next sequence of races would at least be a bit calmer.
200m freestyle: gold medal, world record. The American became the fifth athlete in the modern era to have nine gold medals around his neck, after Paavo Nurmi, Larissa Latynina, Carl Lewis and Mark Spitz.
200m butterfly: gold, world record. Despite some problems with his goggles during the race…
4x200m relay: gold, world record.
200m medley: gold, world record.
At this stage, Phelps had six gold medals in the bag, and as many world records. There were just two more steps to climb – and the next one proved the steepest.
Mike takes on Michael
By the time the day arrived, Phelps already had 3,100m and 15 races in the tank over his various heats, semis and finals. And the indefatigable steed of Bowman was beginning to feel the pinch. Even if no one else knew, he did. "I'm done, I don't have any more energy left. I'm cashed," he told himself after winning his 100m butterfly semi-final in 50:97. Phelps recalls the reaction of his coach: "To put it bluntly, [Bowman] said 'Tough s***. You've got a couple of races to go, and you can suck it up.'"
Phelps' qualifying time was the second fastest of the finalists because in the other semi, a certain Cavic did better – by five hundredths of a second. A day earlier, the Serb had swum even faster in beating the Olympic record for the distance (50:76). Cavic was clearly much fresher than Phelps. He had crossed Europe and Asia to compete in just two events – the 100m freestyle and, now, the 100m butterfly. Aware of his level and limitations, he dropped the 100m freestyle before the semi-finals. He knew that if he was going to win an Olympic medal, it would be in the butterfly. He didn't care what colour. But he had set his targets high.
Even before setting foot in China, Cavic had ramped up the mind-games. "You definitely want to shoot for the gold," he said in a video interview with Swim Network in June, two months before his showdown with Phelps in Beijing.
As much as the world would like to be entertained to see Michael Phelps get eight gold medals, I don't want to give it to him. I hope to stand in the way. I hope to slay the dragon. I don't know if I can even say that, but I did just say it. And that's kind of what it is. Everyone has this idea that he's unbeatable, and he's not. I think I'm going to have a shot.
Who exactly was this Cavic character, who dared to attack the immense Michael Phelps head on? Cavic was Serbian but he came from the West – the west of America, to be precise. His parents, Dujko and Lili, left Yugoslavia in search of a better life in the United States. They settled in the Californian town of Anaheim, a stone's throw from Los Angeles. It was here that Milorad, known better as Mike or Milo, was born, grew up, and was quickly thrown into the Pacific by a father whose heart still yearned for Eastern Europe.
"Out there, the way they teach a lot of the kids to swim is by just throwing them in the water and letting them figure it out," Cavic once said in an interview with Swimming World Magazine. "One of my earliest memories was of my father holding me under water, drowning me. That sounds pretty intense – and it was very intense – but years and years later, I know that his goal wasn't to drown me but to teach me to fight."
Cavic in hot water after breakthrough win
Once he'd learned how, little Milo showed much promise in the pool and, at Tustin High School, he soon made a splash. Possessing dual American and Serbian nationalities, Cavic decided to swim under the colours of his ancestors. Like Phelps, he also dreamed of the Olympic Games. And like Phelps, he got his first taste in 2000 at Sydney. As a 16-year-old, he didn't make it through to any final. Four years later, in Athens? Still no success. But in Greece, at least the signs were encouraging. In the semi-final of the 100m butterfly, he was out in front when his suit opened at the neck and sucked in water. Cavic eventually finished last.
And so it was not until 2008 that Cavic made his first proper ripples in the big pool. At the European Championships in Eindhoven, he hit the jackpot in the 50m butterfly. His first major success was also accompanied with a European record of 23:11. But he didn't get to savour the victory for long. Cavic made the mistake of mixing sport and politics and found himself at the centre of a controversy. On the highest step of the podium, the Serb wore a red t-shirt bearing the words "Kosovo is Serbia" in Cyrillic. Kosovo had just announced its independence. He was sent home from the European Championships in disgrace. "I didn't do it to provoke anger; I didn't do it to provoke violence," he told The Associated Press after the decision.
"It would be good for the sport if Phelps lost"
Cavic was no shrinking violet and he wasn't afraid of saying what he thought. He also had no fear of Phelps. After his outspoken remarks in June 2008, he threw further caution to the wind on the eve of the 100m butterfly final. "I think it would be good for the sport and good for him [if Phelps loses]. I respect him but, as hard as it may seem, he is human. It would be nice if historians talk about Michael Phelps winning seven golds and losing the eighth to 'some guy'. I'd like to be that guy."
The Serb really believed he could do it. And he wasn't the only one. The day before the final, Aaron Peirsol, the US swimmer he had known for a long time, descended from the podium with his silver medal from the 200m backstroke. "I saw him and I congratulated him," Cavic recalls in a documentary directed by Omega and recounting his duel with Phelps. "I want to touch his medal. He pulls it away and says, 'No, man. You think it's cool, but I won't let you touch it. You're swimming for gold.'"
Bowman, who knew Phelps better than anyone, saw that his swimmer was staggering under the pressure, his quest to complete the 12 Herculean tasks stuttering with the clean-up of the Augean Stables. To give him a boost, he decided to show him Cavic's comments. Bingo. "When people say things about me, it just fires me up. It was like the 400 free relay. One of the French swimmers said something to get us going. We use things like that, comments like that to duel us, to get us more excited. That's what Americans do. We rise to the occasion," Phelps admitted to Sports Illustrated a few months later. "When Bob first told me that, I said, 'Okay, we're going to let our swimming do the talking'. I'll always welcome comments like that. It definitely motivates me."
Sufficiently motivated, Phelps found himself on the starting pad the next morning at 10:10am, Beijing time. In Lane 5. On one side he had Cavic in lane 4 and on the other, Ian Crocker, the world record holder, in 6. The Baltimore Bullet could not be better framed.
Cavic's flying start
To achieve his goal, Phelps knew one thing: he must not be left behind in the first 50 metres. Cavic, who was renowned as an excellent starter, was aware of this, too: "I know I'm fast in the first 50, and I knew I was going to lead in the first 50. And I know that Michael is a back-half swimmer, and he would be chasing me down in the end."
As expected, Cavic started strong. 23.42 at the turn, he was nine hundredths of a second quicker than the world record split. After a sluggish start, Phelps was far back. Very far. Too far? Perhaps. Seventh at the half-way point, the defending champion's time was 24.04. Even Crocker, in second place, was three-tenths of a second behind Cavic. The Serb was not messing around.
Phelps seemed like he'd been definitively distanced. But a shark never gives up on its prey. He was still in control. "I knew I had to be within half a body length at the turn. I race against Crocker all the time. He has front-half speed. If I had half a body length, I knew I would be fine. When I saw Crocker at the turn, I knew Cavic would be somewhere with him. I could sort of see him out of the corner of my eye." As always, Phelps had everything mapped out. Almost… He could hardly have imagined that Cavic would fly on the water that morning.
On US television, Rowdy Gaines, a former Olympic champion turned consultant, was close to conceding defeat. At best, it would be a silver medal for Phelps. Unless there was a miracle. But Phelps doesn't believe in miracles. He believes in himself and, until the bitter end, he would hang on to Cavic's coattails, reeling him in centimetre by centimetre, hundredth by hundredth. "I knew [Cavic] always struggles the last 15 metres. That's kind of my chance," he recalls. And Phelps grabbed it with both hands.
The day when Phelps finally retired from the sport, his coach recalled a detail which made his swimmer stand out. In addition to the exceptional precision mechanics of his biological make-up, Phelps always possessed, Bowman said, "the emotional ability to get up for big races and be able to perform better under pressure". In other words, Phelps was able to achieve normal things in an abnormal environment. He could swim, of that there was no doubt, and he could make decisions, clearly. But he could also do both of these things simultaneously in conditions entirely unsuitable to harnessing the two together.
Anything but a textbook finale
That August morning, Phelps managed to wind back the hands on the clock. When Cavic stretched his long limbs for a final touch that would write a famous chapter in the history of Serbia – never previously a medallist at the Games – Phelps refused to lay down his weapons and decided to carry on swimming. Unlike Cavic, he wouldn't glide into the wall. Instead, he performed one last flap of his butterfly wings. It was either a masterstroke or a suicidal idea – perhaps a bit of both. But Phelps went for this final roll of the dice, knowing full well that it could cost him gold.
"He was behind me," Cavic recalls. " He knew that he was behind me, and he knew that if he also had a long finish as I did, he would have lost. So his only option was to take another stroke but make it a half-stroke. It's not textbook. It's not something any coach ever wants you to do." It never crossed the Serb's mind to do it. Not only was he ahead, he had run out of pool: it wouldn't have been his hands that hit the wall, but his face. Head on.
His hands reaching out to a certain gold, Cavic touched the wall. At exactly the same time as Phelps. It's impossible to say who won – even if first impressions clearly favoured Cavic. "To a naked eye, he won the race," Phelps would admit much later, in the Omega documentary. "The lack of oxygen in your body and in your head, it makes things very, very blurry for your eyes," Cavic says in the same film. "It takes a couple of moments just for everything to clear up. Exhausted, we turn towards the scoreboard. It takes a little time for the vision to come back. I saw my name and I saw a '2'. I think that Michael was really lucky."
Phelps also thought he had lost – until he saw the '1' beside his name. Phelps was timed at 50.58, Cavic at 50.59. Gary Hall Jr, the 10-time Olympic medallist and training partner of Cavic at the famous Race Club, was not convinced. As he told the New York Times: "He [Phelps] finished with his arms bent, and you should be fully extended at the finish, like Mike Cavic was. Michael Phelps can go to bed tonight feeling very fortunate he got gold No. 7 around his neck."
But before putting his head to the pillow as the equal to the great Mark Spitz, the far greater Michael Phelps roared with joy, punched the air and performed an exuberant double-handed splash of the pool. Once out of the water, his analysis of the facts differed from Hall. "He [Cavic] is coming up and then trying to lift his head up before he touches the wall. That made him lose some aerodynamism. [My head] is in a straight streamline. So that's the difference in the race. If his head is down there, he wins."
For his part, Spitz always said that he didn't believe that his countryman had won what he described as an "epic" race. But he also stressed that Phelps was "the greatest swimmer in the world – with or without that medal".
'We're not distributing the footage. Everything is settled'
The difference was the smallest official margin possible. The photo finish, which became iconic and is today framed in Phelps' office, did not convince many people at the time. For regardless of the number of times you review the images, the predominant feeling remains the same: that Cavic seemed to touch the wall first. The Serbian delegation was certainly convinced of this. As soon as the result was given, Serbia filed a protest with FINA, the sport's world governing body.
This whole story was played out against a backdrop of suspicion, for the company Omega, the official timekeeper of the Beijing Games, was also a sponsor of… Phelps. People quickly put two and two together. On top of this, FINA did very little to remove the suspicion. For when it made its decision known, FINA saw fit to withhold the photo-finish images. For what reason? "We are not going to distribute footage. Everything is good. What are you going to do with the footage? See what the Serbians already saw? It is clarified for us beyond any doubt," Cornel Marculescu, executive director of FINA, rather clumsily said.
Less than two hours after Phelps' historic touch, FINA decided in favour of the American. Thanks to digital cameras placed above the water lines and capable of breaking down a second into two thousand images, the Serbs eventually conceded that their man had been beaten by the American. Phelps was duly crowned Olympic champion for the 15th time, and the seventh time in one Games, drawing level with Spitz's long-standing record. The eighth gold would follow the next day.
It turned out that Cavic lost not because he touched the wall in second place, but because he hadn't pressed the sensors of the timing plate hard enough. A pressure of three kilos per square centimetre was needed to stop the clock. And while Cavic touched the wall first, Phelps, speeding from behind like a torpedo while his rival glided in on a wave, simply hit the target with more force.
No regrets from the man who would be king
As incredible and inconceivable as it sounds, Cavic accepted this cruel twist philosophically and calmly, sure that he would have won the race nine times out of 10. He said he hoped people would forget about the protest and instead focus on the race itself. "I'm stoked with what happened. I am very, very happy. I don't want to fight this. It is a difficult thing to lose, but you have to understand that I came into this competition with a goal to win a bronze medal. I went my best time, and I did better – I got silver, and I almost got gold. It was a real honour for me to be able to race with Michael Phelps and be in a situation where all eyes were on me as the one man that would possibly be able to do it. It's too bad that we couldn't both have finished at 50.58. I would have loved to share the gold medal."
On his blog, he added: "People, this is the greatest moment of my life. If you ask me, it should be accepted, and we should move on. I've accepted defeat, and there's nothing wrong with losing to the greatest swimmer there has ever been." Cavic reportedly slept with his silver medal wrapped around his neck for several nights. He was later voted Serbia's best sportsman of 2008.
Cavic never became an Olympic champion. That silver was his first and only Olympic medal in four Games. But before retiring, he did manage to win a World Championships gold in the 50m butterfly in Rome in 2009. And another silver medal in the 100m butterfly behind… Phelps. In that race, both rivals became the first two swimmers to swim the 100 fly under 50 seconds. The world record that Cavic had set just two days earlier went back to Phelps, who was never very good at loaning out what was rightfully his.
When the dust settled, Cavic said he was proud at having been immortalised through the race in Beijing. He insisted he would not trade his medal for gold and stressed that he never harboured any bitterness towards his executioner. Quite the contrary. "He didn't steal anything from me. People don't understand that it was a good thing for me," he explained to L'Equipe in 2009. "The morning of the race, I was a nobody. No one would have betted on me doing something at those Games. And then, I emerged from the shadows. It was as if I always drove a Yugo and I suddenly found myself behind the wheel of a BMW." But we all know that a German sedan is no match for an American rocket launched towards Mars. Cavic was always destined to come off second best – perhaps that was precisely why the race was so unforgettable.
Written by Maxime Dupuis, translated by Felix Lowe