Friday July 31st, 2009

Milorad Cavic has been waiting for Saturday's 100-meter butterfly final -- and a showdown with Michael Phelps -- for the past year. It is a rematch Cavic has looked forward to since he lost out last August on an Olympic title and a chance to spoil Phelps' historic run of eight gold medals.

That race, on a steamy morning at Beijing's Water Cube, saw Phelps touch-out Cavic by .01 seconds, a mere fingernail. (Phelps won the same event in similar fashion at the 2004 Olympics, rallying to out-touch American Ian Crocker by .04 seconds.) Now Cavic, a 25-year-old Serb who grew up in California, is the favorite after Friday's semifinal heat of the 100-meter butterfly at the world championships in Rome. He lowered Phelps' world record on Friday night from 50.22 seconds to 50.01 to set up the most anticipated race of the eight-day swimming championships.

Why is Cavic the favorite over the 14-time Olympic gold medalist? He swam the fastest time here and he is in better shape because he was pounding laps in the fall when Phelps was reveling in post-Olympic glory for six months. In response to almost any question in Rome, Cavic has referenced the race in Beijing, even as he has told people he was over it. Earlier this week he insisted that he won that race, despite photo evidence to the contrary. Cavic's makeup is such that he internalizes perceived wrongs so that he can use them as fuel. He skulks around like Joe Frazier, waiting for another shot at Muhammad Ali. Now he'll have his chance at around 12:40 p.m. Eastern time (6:40 p.m. local time) on Saturday.

If Cavic has the faster swimsuit, he doesn't want to hear about it. These swimming world championships have been skewed by the advantages that full polyurethane suits have given racers who are wearing them because they are not under contract to wear something less water-efficient. Cavic has a suit from Arena that blurs the line between floatation aid and speedboat. The Phelps model, pronounced "space-aged" by Speedo just a year ago, is already outdated.. On Friday FINA, the sport's international governing body, announced that it would have a full set of rules in place by Jan. 1 that would, among other things, outlaw most of the suits including Cavic's. Those suits have set the majority of the 35 world records to date in Rome.

Earlier in the meet Cavic suggested that Phelps wear the full-body polyurethane suit rather than his textile blend from Speedo so they could be on equal footing when they dive in on Saturday. Cavic implied that should Phelps lose, nobody would be able to claim that he swam in a slower suit. In fact Cavic is the one swimmer who has been raising the suit issue throughout the week, saying he would pay for Phelps to wear one of the faster suits. He even boldly declared that everyone should swim in briefs for the final. Phelps had been trying to downplay the issue but he acknowledged on Friday that he had heard the remarks. "If he wants to wear a different suit," Phelps said, tugging at his Speedo model, "he can throw this one on."

The race on Saturday is almost two races. Cavic, the world champion in the 50 fly, will win the first half of the race. As the Olympic champ in the 200, Phelps will win the second half. The strategy is simple: Cavic will try to build an enormous lead by the first wall and dare Phelps and the others to catch him. Phelps, who was in seventh place at the turn in the Beijing final, will try to run down the field again. That should include not only Cavic, but also Spain's Rafael Munoz, who has put up fast times all season and was a tenth behind Phelps in his semifinal heat. On Friday Cavic's first 50 was a full second faster than Phelps' (22.83 seconds to 23.87). "My first 50 is going to have to be a lot closer than a second behind," said Phelps, who won his semifinal in the 100 fly in 50.48. "The guy's got a lot of speed....He was almost seven-tenths faster going out than he was coming back. I'm going to have to step on the gas for that first 25. It's going to be the same as it was at the Olympics. I'm probably going to have to be at his hips [i.e. within half a second at the turn] in order to run him down. You live for races like this."

Earlier in the week when he won the 50-meter butterfly Cavic remarked, "I'd like to enjoy this more, but I'm really focused on the hundred." That was then. On Friday night he stormed passed the assembled press corps in the mixed zone with a one-word message for the world: "Manana."

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