Revisiting the wild finish
Kevin Van Valkenburg: Let's cut right to the chase, my friend. Watching Michael Phelps out-touched Milorad Cavic at the wall in the 100-meter butterfly was maybe the most amazing thing I think I'll ever witness. I don't care what people think about swimming, it goes down as one of the most clutch moments in sports history. Think about how much was on the line, and how far behind Phelps was at the 50-meter mark (7th). Standing in the arena, my heart was racing. I still can't believe what I saw, or how in the the world I was able to write about it. It was one of the moments I'll tell my kids about someday, without a doubt.
Rick Maese: Can’t argue with any of that. In fact, the first dozen words out of my mouth aren’t printable in this space. The words "unbelievable" did quickly come to mind, because, well, I couldn’t believe what I'd seen. He was finished. With 25-30 meters to go, he wasn't even headed to the podium. The initial replay angles didn’t seem to show Phelps as the winner. For me, the win underscored Phelps' status amongst Olympic gods. A part of me does wonder if everyone was convinced.
KVV: This was like Michael Jordan rising up over Craig Ehlo and nailing that final jump shot, except it's like doing it from half court with an NBA championship on the line. Do you realize they slowed down the video and watched the finish to the 10,000th of a second? FINA officials said that, when you broke it down like that, it was obvious that Phelps won, but I'm not sure anyone in Serbia will walk away convinced. Cavic was underwater, Phelps out of the water, so it looked in every sense like there was no way that Phelps got there first, but that's what great athletes do. They seem to defy space and time.
RM: While the difference was clearly the final 50 meters – Phelps 26.54; Cavic 27.17 – it was really that final push. And that’s also what seemed to cause the confusion. Above water, we could see Phelps was still stroking his way toward the wall. But it appeared Cavic was underwater, successfully lunging for the wall. I was next to Scott Goldblatt, who right away noted the 1988 final where Matt Biondi was beat by a 0.01 seconds. Twenty years later, while Cavic kicked and glided, Phelps stroked and won. And that final stroke will prove to be the difference between eight gold medals and seven.
KVV: Cavic was sort of in shock in the moments after the finish, and it looked like he wasn't going to talk to anyone at first as he stormed through the mixed zone. You could tell he initially thought the fix was in. Phelps is sponsored by Omega, and Omega Timing is in charge of recording the electronic finish. The front page of SI.com has a great photo from the bottom of the pool which shows Phelps clearly getting his hand on the wall first. The ensuing news conference was a madhouse. Cavic handled it about the best he possibly could, saying that people will probably come up to him years from now and tell him he won that race, which isn't a bad thing, in his opinion. I have to say though, this is just one more reminder of why gymnastics and figure skating are entertainment, not sports. Sports are something we can measure definitively. The clock doesn't lie, or take bribes, or take away points based on artistic interpretation. Had Phelps gotten his hand on the wall second, we would have seen it. The results are so instantaneous that it would be impossible to fix. Ian Crocker, who finished fourth, said it's possible to graze the touch pad and not have it register right away, but not when you're swimming that fast. Crocker, by the way, still holds the world record in the 100 fly, which is remarkable when you consider all the world records set this week. That might be the one world record Phelps never owns.
RM: He did set the Olympic record in the race, though. You know he’d love to own the world record, too, but it will have zero effect on Phelps’ legacy. The truth is, even if he walked away from the pool today and never let another droplet of water touch him in his life, Phelps will go down as the best Olympian ever (Carl Lewis is the only other name I’d put in the conversation). Dude has more gold than Mr. T. Already more career gold than anyone before him. And after this final race, he’ll have officially passed Mark Spitz. Remember these Olympics weren’t about equaling Spitz’s mark. The oft-heard quote goes something like this: I don’t want to be the next Mark Spitz. I want to be the first Michael Phelps. He’s done a pretty good job of that.
KVV: This was never about Spitz for Phelps, although both swimmers were gracious in their brief exchange after the race. This was about Phelps for Phelps. He hates losing so much, and loves to prove to people that they can't tell him something is impossible. I think you're going to see him change his program completely in the next four years as he tries to prove he can accomplish anything he wants to. People are going to say there is no way he can win the 100-meter freestyle in London. I bet he can. And I think he'll win both backstroke events. How can you bet against him at this point? I love team sports. I grew up playing football, and Magic Johnson was my childhood hero. But Phelps is the most amazing athlete I've ever seen. I really believe that. He might not resonate with people in Baltimore like Johnny Unitas, Cal Ripken or Brooks Robinson simply because swimming isn't as popular, but he deserves to be mentioned right there with them. The greatest athletes have iconic moments like this. They do things that give us chills and make us curse in amazement. When Phelps touched the wall this morning and the scoreboard said he'd won, it was so loud inside the Water Cube, I could barely hear myself think. I could feel my heart pounding though, and that's what I'll always remember. The place was shaking, people were screaming, Phelps was pumping his fist and screaming with emotion. As I sprinted down the stairs -- shoving stunned foreign journalists out of the way to try and make deadline -- I had chills on my arm.
(Photos: Associated Press)