By Brian Cazeneuve
August 01, 2009

ROME -- Do not mess with Michael Phelps. He runs on emotion, dances through fire and uses all slights, disses and challenges to make himself swim faster. As Ali needed Frazier, Maris needed Mantle and Hatfield needed McCoy, the 2009 version of Michael Phelps, the eight Olympic golds behind him, needed Milorad Cavic to measure himself against at the world championships in Rome.

Phelps outraced his Serbian rival to the wall again in the 100-meter butterfly on Saturday in what is surely the race of the year. Both men went under the record of 50.01 seconds Cavic established on Friday as well as the vaunted 50-second barrier. Phelps touched in 49.82 seconds. Cavic was next in 49.95. The verbal back-and-forth ended in a splash of emotion for Phelps after a week in which the Serbian questioned the legitimacy of Phelps's Olympic victory against him by a hundredth of a second and also dared Phelps to wear the highest-tech swimsuit so he would not have an excuse for defeat should Cavic beat him while wearing one.

The words and Cavic's outstanding swimming ability fueled Phelps's fire and set off a post-race jubilation even Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, said he had never seen before. "You could tell by my celebration how much this meant to me," Phelps said. After he saw the final times on the scoreboard, Phelps defiantly punched the water with both hands, then spit water through his teeth and slapped his own chest in much the same way Cavic often slaps his own before races. After he put up one finger and saluted his mother and sister in the stands, Phelps then glided from lane five past Cavic in lane four and slapped hands with Rafael Munoz, the Spaniard who won the bronze medal swimming in lane three. "I choose never to comment on anything," Phelps said after his victory. "Things motivate me -- sometimes comments, sometimes what people do. That's just how I tick."

After the race, Cavic spotted Bowman, shook the coach's hand and let out an exasperated exhale as he tellingly rolled his eyes. After all, what more does a man have to do than to go under the existing world record twice in two days?

The showdown had the drama of a heavyweight confrontation. "It was kind of cool before the race," Phelps said. "I felt everyone's eyes watching every move everyone made. It was as exciting a race as I've been a part of."

The duel evolved as expected. Cavic took the lead early and hit the 50-meter wall first in 22.69 seconds. Before the race, Bowman and Phelps had set 23.5 as their maximum. If Phelps was that fast -- his split in Friday's semifinal was just 23.87 -- he would likely be close enough to Cavic to have a fighting chance to win. When Phelps touched in 23.36, Bowman was convinced. "When I saw that," the coach said, "I thought for sure Michael had it." Both Phelps and Cavic concurred. "I set it up in the first 50," Phelps said. "I felt so good coming off that wall. I saw the splashes coming from his lane. Then I saw them coming closer and closer to me." Added Cavic: "At 50 meters, I turned and saw him too close for my comfort. I didn't know if I was going too slow or he was going too fast ... Michael Phelps is Michael Phelps. He does what he does and he did."

Cavic was equally resigned and gracious in his post-race press conference. "I never attacked Michael. I have nothing but respect for the guy," he insisted. "When I race Michael Phelps, I want him at his best." Those remarks didn't necessarily jibe with his pronouncements during the week. Perhaps Cavic's bravado had the opposite effect he intended on both of the swimmers. Cavic confessed he felt "too much energy going on" before the race, as if the tension of the showdown was wearing on him.

By contrast, Phelps' psyche was solid, though his pre-race concerns were physical. Bowman said he had noted Phelps' intensity over the previous 24 hours, the attention to detail in everything from his warm-up swims to his eating to his mannerisms, the telltale signs of a great athlete reaching for his best. But an hour before the event, he bumped heads in the warm-up pool with Australia's Cate Campbell just as the swimmers were stroking in opposite directions. Both suffered bumps on their heads that momentarily blurred their vision and Phelps subluxed his left shoulder. It was enough of a jolt that Bowman asked him if he wanted to scratch from the final. "He was so stunned by it," said Bowman, "We were saying, oh my gosh, what do we do now?'"

Phelps figured it out. It seems he always does. Raise the stakes and widen the stage. That's when Phelps loves to swim. "The coolest thing is being able to have races like this," Phelps said, "because it brings the best out of everybody."

For Phelps, that usually means going one better.

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