Flashing Back to Michael Phelps' Defining Moment: The Fingertip Gold of 2008

Greg CouchNational ColumnistAugust 13, 2016

Michael Phelps, left, needed a super-quick stroke to catch and pass Milorad Cavic in the final meter of the 100 butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Michael Phelps, left, needed a super-quick stroke to catch and pass Milorad Cavic in the final meter of the 100 butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Every great drama has to have conflict. Michael Phelps' life away from the pool has had plenty of it, but his superhuman results in the pool? It's hard to find one defining, challenging moment in a career of 22 (and counting) gold medals.

As Phelps goes into what he says is his final Olympic race Saturday, the end of what could arguably be the best Olympic career ever, it's no easy task to pick one race that stands out in a blur of greatness.

As Milorad Cavic told Vice Sports' Aimee Berg, gold medals don't say on them which race they are for, and Phelps has so many he surely doesn't even know anymore which medal goes with which incredible accomplishment.

Who is Cavic? Just some guy.

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Phelps was trying to end the debate about whether he was the greatest swimmer of all time. His legacy's last need was to catch Mark Spitz's record of seven golds in one Games. Through six events in Beijing, Phelps not only had six gold medals, but he also had six world records.

Cavic was going to face him in the seventh event, the 100-meter butterfly. The night before, Cavic told ESPN's Pat Forde it would be best for swimming and for Phelps if Phelps lost. And that people would remember Phelps winning all those races but losing one to some guy. Cavic wanted to be that anonymous guy.

There is no suspense in withholding who won the race. Phelps did. Or, actually, he won the gold medal. To this day, nobody is really sure who won the race, who touched the timing pad first—Phelps or Cavic. Officially, Phelps won by 0.01 seconds.

Put it this way: If you clap your hands twice as fast as you can, the time between the first and second claps will be more than that one hundredth of a second.

But there was no denying that's what the Omega clocks said. There also was no doubt Phelps was an Omega spokesman. And that Omega would benefit from Phelps winning and breaking Spitz's records.


Having covered Games in Athens, Beijing and London, I have been to dozens of Phelps' Olympic races. Unquestionably, the Games that stood out most as belonging to Phelps was Beijing in 2008. As you probably know, he did get his eight gold medals, did bypass Spitz.

Phelps was the big storyline going into those Olympics. He was defining the Games not only with his greatness, but also, skeptics felt, with his incredible marketing push. He was everywhere.

As a result, every one of his races created a different buzz through the crowd. At the Olympics, especially in sports that aren't in the mainstream all the time, there is an extra excitement. Cultures come together, and people see things they've only heard about from afar. I remember being in another building watching some other sport when I realized Phelps was about to swim.

So I ran over to that big, architecturally odd Water Cube, arrived mid-race and stood in an aisle, blocking other people's views until I crouched down. Phelps' races tend to blend together, but I think it was the 4x100-meter freestyle relay. Phelps and the United States team were about to lose, but Jason Lezak swam an otherworldly anchor leg to come back and win.

Phelps' boyhood hero, Australian superstar Ian Thorpe, had said four years earlier he didn't think Phelps would catch Spitz in Athens, mostly because Phelps' competition was so good. That's how Thorpe remembered it. But it turned into inspiration for Phelps, who placed the quote on his locker during training, with the idea not that Thorpe had said Phelps wouldn't do it but that he couldn't.

Like so many athletes, Phelps uses those types of things as motivation. Four years later, after Beijing, Thorpe, according to Kaz Mochlinski of the Telegraph, said, "Never in my life have I been so happy to have been proved wrong. I enjoyed every moment of it."

Phelps was motivated the same way by Cavic's comments. On the morning of the 100 butterfly, Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, told Phelps what Cavic had said.

Phelps, right, and Cavic were separated by a hundredth of a second.
Phelps, right, and Cavic were separated by a hundredth of a second.Nick Laham/Getty Images

"That fired me up more than anything," Phelps said on NBC just after the race.

There always seems to be some guy trying to trash-talk Phelps or stare him down. This week in Rio, Chad le Clos shadowboxed in front of Phelps before a semifinal race in the 200-meter butterfly.

Phelps looked right through him. Then, he beat him (though he finished second in the heat). The next night, he won the final.

But in Beijing against Cavic, it looked like Phelps was finished. He made the turn into the final length of the race in seventh place out of eight swimmers. He moved up on everyone, as he was known to do. But in the final 15 meters, it seemed like he wasn't going to catch Cavic.

In the final 10, too. Cavic said he saw Phelps' shadow in the side of his goggles. But even at the wall, Cavic seemed to be in front. The still photos that flooded the internet, newspapers and magazines showed Cavic with his arms forward, inches from touching the wall, while Phelps' arms were to his sides.

It defied logic that Phelps could get his arms in front of him and touch the wall before Cavic traveled those final inches.

Phelps had been caught between strokes, unsure whether he should reach and glide to the finish or try to jam in an additional half-stroke. He jammed in the stroke and thought the extra time he spent doing so had cost him the race.

Phelps thought he had lost. The NBC cameras, obsessed all week with showing Phelps' mother in the stands, showed her holding up two fingers. Second place. Bowman thought Phelps was second. And then the times went up:

Phelps: 50.58 seconds.

Cavic: 50.59.

Phelps pounded the water after edging Cavic and matching Mark Spitz's feat of seven golds in one Games.
Phelps pounded the water after edging Cavic and matching Mark Spitz's feat of seven golds in one Games.MICHAEL KAPPELER/Getty Images

The Serbian coaches—Cavic is from California but represented Serbia—filed a protest. Sports Illustrated ran a series of detailed photos. When FINA officials showed their video to the Serbs, they dropped the protest.

Phelps had his seventh gold, tying Spitz. He broke the record in a relay the next day.

NBC asked Phelps after the race if he had really thought he would catch Spitz.

"I think in my dreams I always wanted it," he said. "I thought under the perfect circumstances I could do it."

Cavic with his silver medal.
Cavic with his silver medal.GREG WOOD/Getty Images

Cavic came back in the 2012 London Games but lost to Phelps in the 100 fly again, finishing tied for fourth. By all appearances in the Vice Sports story, Cavic is at ease with the outcome from 2008. He said he loves his silver medal.

"It's one of my most precious possessions," he said. "It's in the States in my safe. A couple times per year, I would look at it just for my own self, outside of appearances."

Phelps got a $1 million bonus from Speedo for catching Spitz. And you know what happened after that.

It's a blur, but you know. The buzz is still there.


Greg Couch covers the Olympics for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @gregcouch.