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ThisClose to Phelps

Dec. 08, 2008
Dec. 08, 2008

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Dec. 8, 2008

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ThisClose to Phelps

Milorad Cavic is still coping with his one-hundredth-of-a-second loss

IN CROWDED roomsover the last few months, I have asked for a show of hands. Milorad Cavic? Whocan place the name? No one has yet raised a hand. A few have reflexivelystarted to, then stopped—and they all later said that they thought he was asoccer player or a military leader or had something to do with the UnitedNations.

This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2008 issue

Milorad Cavicshould be remembered, though, because while we admire Michael Phelps, SI's 2008Sportsman of the Year (page 38), we probably cannot understand what it means towin eight Olympic gold medals. But having a dream in sight and seeing itsnatched away—yes, that is something any of us can appreciate.

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

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

"I'm prettycool with the whole thing," Cavic says. This has been his defiant stancefrom the start—he has insisted on being cool with it all. Even in the momentsafter the race, Cavic talked about how proud he was and said he had no wish toprotest the results. He slept with his silver medal wrapped around his neck forseveral nights. He insisted that he would not trade it for gold.

But you wonder howcool he can be—how cool anyone could be—with falling one hundredth of a secondshort of international fame and Olympic glory.

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

Cavic brazenlycame to Beijing to take out Phelps. That's what he said at the time, and he hasnever hidden his feelings. He was suspended at the European Championships inMarch for wearing a red T-shirt that had the words KOSOVO IS SERBIA written inSerbian Cyrillic. Kosovo had declared independence about a month earlier, andCavic, a Cal alum, said he was trying to send some positive energy back toSerbia.

"It was a veryBerkeley thing to do," he says.

In Beijing, theday before his big race, Cavic said this: "It would be good for the sportif Phelps lost." Phelps later said that those words "fired him up,"but Cavic does not regret them. "I respect Michael," he says. "Youhave to—he's just that good.... As hard as it is to believe, he's humantoo."

The ending of the100-meter butterfly has been played and replayed on TV and the Internet overthe past three months. Despite photo evidence to the contrary from SI seniorstaff photographer Heinz Kluetmeier, Cavic still believes he made contact withthe wall first. But the winner is the person who triggers the touch pad, whichtakes three kilograms per square centimeter of force. Cavic concedes that wasPhelps.

"I neverreally 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 futurenow." (Specifically, he's got his eye on the world championships nextsummer, when he hopes to reclaim his 100 butterfly world record in a race thatwill most likely include Phelps.) But this week, he found himself talking aboutthe past again when Phelps, appearing on 60 Minutes, said that Cavic made acrucial mistake in the final meter of the race. "So he's coming up and thentrying 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 therace.... If his head is down there, he wins."

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

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

In the days afterthe race, Cavic enjoyed his own brief celebrity—he received thousands ofe-mails and letters congratulating him for pushing Phelps to the brink andhandling his loss with dignity. In the months since, though, his name has beenforgotten. Someone did pretend to be him on Facebook, but that was about theextent of his notoriety. He just became that guy, you know, the one Phelps beatat the wall.

"The winnersalways write history," Cavic says. Yes, they do.

Joe Posnanski isan SI.com special contributor and a columnist for The Kansas City Star.

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Cavic insists he's cool with it all. But how cool cananyone be with falling just short of FAME AND GLORY?
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