ThisClose to Phelps

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In crowded rooms over the last few months, I have asked for a show of hands. Milorad Cavic? Who can place the name? No one has yet raised a hand. A few have reflexively started to, then stopped -- and they all later said that they thought he was a soccer player or a military leader or had something to do with the United Nations.

Milorad Cavic should be remembered, though, because while we admire Michael Phelps, SI's 2008 Sportsman of the Year, we probably cannot understand what it means to win eight Olympic gold medals. But having a dream in sight and seeing it snatched away -- yes, that is something any of us can appreciate.

On Saturday morning, Aug. 16, in Beijing, Cavic and Michael Phelps crashed into the wall at the end of their mind-blowing Olympic 100-meter butterfly race. It was a race for the ages. Cavic was the fastest butterfly starter in the world, and as expected he led the first 80 meters. Phelps was the greatest finisher in the world, and as expected he closed hard. In the final five meters Cavic went low and stretched for the wall. Phelps found himself between strokes and lunged out of the water one last time. They hit the wall together.

No, not exactly. The electronic clock registered that Phelps touched one hundredth of a second sooner. What is one hundredth of a second? It is 30 times faster than the blink of an eye. It is 1/36 of the time it takes a 100-mph fastball to reach the plate. It is the blur of lightning striking. It is a flutter of time so minuscule that the mind cannot comprehend it, and yet that is what Milorad Cavic has left to comprehend.

"I'm pretty cool with the whole thing," Cavic says. This has been his defiant stance from the start -- he has insisted on being cool with it all. Even in the moments after the race, Cavic talked about how proud he was and said he had no wish to protest the results. He slept with his silver medal wrapped around his neck for several nights. He insisted that he would not trade it for gold.

But you wonder how cool he can be -- how cool anyone could be -- with falling one hundredth of a second short of international fame and Olympic glory.

Cavic, the son of Serbian parents who was born and raised in California (he has dual citizenship and represents Serbia), had been thinking about swimming that race in the Olympics just about all 24 years of his life. He claims to dream about swimming every night. When awake he visualizes going through his butterfly stroke as he walks, and when he gets to the door he reaches for it like it's the pool wall and he is about to make a turn. "I find myself doing some unusual things that might make me appear like I belong in a mental institution," he says.

Cavic brazenly came to Beijing to take out Phelps. That's what he said at the time, and he has never hidden his feelings. He was suspended at the European Championships in March for wearing a red T-shirt that had the words KOSOVO IS SERBIA written in Serbian Cyrillic. Kosovo had declared independence about a month earlier, and Cavic, a Cal alum, said he was trying to send some positive energy back to Serbia.

"It was a very Berkeley thing to do," he says.

In Beijing, the day before his big race, Cavic said this: "It would be good for the sport if Phelps lost." Phelps later said that those words "fired him up," but Cavic does not regret them. "I respect Michael," he says. "You have to -- he's just that good.... As hard as it is to believe, he's human too."

The ending of the 100-meter butterfly has been played and replayed on TV and the Internet over the past three months. Despite photo evidence to the contrary from SI senior staff photographer Heinz Kluetmeier, Cavic still believes he made contact with the wall first. But the winner is the person who triggers the touch pad, which takes three kilograms per square centimeter of force. Cavic concedes that was Phelps.

"I never really wanted to burden myself with the what-if questions," he says. And: "It's time to move on." And: "I'm really looking to the future now." (Specifically, he's got his eye on the world championships next summer, when he hopes to reclaim his 100 butterfly world record in a race that will most likely include Phelps.) But this week, he found himself talking about the past again when Phelps, appearing on 60 Minutes, said that Cavic made a crucial mistake in the final meter of the race. "So he's coming up and then trying to lift his head up before he touches the wall," Phelps said. "[My head] is in a straight streamline. So that's the difference in the race.... If his head is down there, he wins."

Phelps was simply stating a fact, not criticizing Cavic, but those comments still hit hard. "I'm not saying his analysis of what happened is incorrect," Cavic says in a rare moment of bitterness. "I'm just saying he failed to take into account the things in the other 99 meters of the race."

Cavic then reeled off a list of advantages that Phelps had -- a custom-made Speedo swimsuit, a ripple-free cap, a team of doctors, nutritionists, physicists and therapists at his disposal. He knows it sounds like sour grapes, but he can't help it. Come on, it was one hundredth of a second. How would any of us handle missing out on global glory by some infinitesimal distance? He would have been rich. He would have been famous. And Phelps still would have won seven gold medals. Phelps would have been just fine.

In the days after the race, Cavic enjoyed his own brief celebrity -- he received thousands of e-mails and letters congratulating him for pushing Phelps to the brink and handling his loss with dignity. In the months since, though, his name has been forgotten. Someone did pretend to be him on Facebook, but that was about the extent of his notoriety. He just became that guy, you know, the one Phelps beat at the wall.

"The winners always write history," Cavic says. Yes, they do.