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Reflecting on the greatest non-Olympic swim in history

By admin | August 1, 2009

Sat Aug 01, 2009
By Alan Abrahamson / Universal Sports

By: Getty Images
Michael Phelps’ strong back-half
speed propelled him to victory in the
100m butterfly on Saturday.

ROME — This was the greatest non-Olympic swim race in history. Michael Phelps won.

This was a moment when ordinary people, in an echo of the summer of 2008, were talking about swimming. Not football or baseball or whatever. This was swimming live on American TV, swimming on the sports highlights shows, swimming on sports and even news shows airing not just in the United States but around the world. Because of Michael Phelps.

This was an extraordinary display of training and technique, tenacity and tactic. From Michael Phelps.

“This was amazing,” Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, said afterward here at the Foro Italico, searching for just the right words. “This was truly amazing.”

It was, indeed, truly amazing. In what will go down in the books as one of the legendary swims of a historic career, Phelps swam a world-record 49.82 to best Milorad Cavic in the final of the men’s 100-meter butterfly here at the 2009 World Championships.

Cavic finished second in 49.95.

Both men became the first in history to go in the 49s. Both also went under the world record that Cavic had set in the semifinals, 50.01.

At the finish, upon seeing that he had won, Phelps slapped the water in triumph. He made a “bring it” motion with his hands to the crowd, already cheering loudly for him. He thrust his hand up and made a familiar sign: No. 1.

He pulled at the front of his Speedo LZR swimsuit — a clear reference to smack-talk issued from Cavic here earlier in the week, Cavic swimming in a supposedly faster polyurethane Arena X-Glide, Phelps in the 2008 technology that is the LZR. Cavic had even offered to buy Phelps one of the newer suits. No thanks, Phelps had said.

It was as much emotion at the end of the race as Michael Phelps has ever — ever — shown.

“I have not ever seen him that emotional, and he deserved it,” Bowman said.

“You could tell from my celebration that satisfied me a little bit,” Phelps, back to being understated, said a few minutes after the race had ended.

Phelps also said, “It doesn’t matter what suit you wear. It matters how you train.”

This race turned out to be nothing less than Round Two of the heavyweight fight that has come to dominate swimming.

The mano-a-mano nature of it was further heightened because Phelps swam Saturday night in Lane 5, Cavic immediately next to him in 4. “It’s almost like a straight showdown,” Phelps said. “It’s like boxers going face to face for a weigh-in. That’s kind of cool for the sport. It sort of brings more excitement. ”

Round One, of course, went to Phelps last summer in Beijing, Phelps touching in 50.58, Cavic in 50.59. The 100 fly in Beijing marked the seventh of the eight gold medals Phelps would win there.

The photographic and electronic record from Beijing is absolutely indisputable. Phelps won.

Nonetheless, Cavic said here earlier this week that he believes he touched first — an exercise in semantics that ignores the fundamental facts. It’s not grazing the plastic that drops into the water at the wall. It’s hitting that plastic with enough pressure to stop the electronic clock.

Which is what Phelps did.

The observation about the clock marked Cavic’s first bid here this week to unsettle Phelps. The second: the suit thing, including the observations that Phelps was “making a lot of money from Speedo” and that “free will is a gift with a price tag — whatever you choose to do, you’re going to pay.”

Phelps, as he has always done, said he would let his swimming do the talking.

Traditionally, Phelps has used such comments come race time as rocket fuel. Asked here late Saturday if he needed Cavic to be, and this was the word used in the question, “mouthy,” Phelps replied, “I don’t mind it, I’ll say that.”

Cavic, who grew up in Southern California but swims for Serbia, moved to Europe to train after the 2008 Olympics. This was, in essence, one man training one year for one race — the 100 finals Saturday night.

Phelps, as has been well documented, took six months off from training after Beijing and then longer still from racing after the publication of the famous bong photo. He resumed training in March, racing in May.

Phelps thus had nowhere near as much prep time this year as he would otherwise have before an Olympics or worlds, and with the advent of the high-tech suits, it showed here earlier this week in the 200 free, when Germany’s Paul Biedermann, wearing one of the new suits, won going away, Phelps coming in second.

If that race underscored the import of the suits — Biedermann has dropped four seconds off his 200 free time since Beijing, unheard-of in just one year in elite swimming — it did not, as some might have wondered, suggest that Phelps was suddenly vulnerable in the butterfly.

Given that he had only so much time, Phelps and Bowman spent this year gearing up for the fly events here in Rome. The 100 fly in Beijing was the only one of Phelps’ five individual golds in Beijing that was close; it thus made sense to work that the most.

Moreover, Phelps got into the weight room as never before.

Here’s why:

The Phelps way has always been to swim the final 50 of the 100 fly — what swimmers call the back half — with incomparable speed.

Cavic’s strategy is to go out fast in the first 50 and try to hang on.

Phelps and Bowman knew Cavic would be faster this year, particularly in the X-Glide, than in Beijing. Their counterpunch, if you will, was to make Phelps stronger. That strength would drive him through the front half of the race — the start, the drive, the turn. Then he could let his back-half superiority take over.

Phelps did not need to be as fast as Cavic going out. But Phelps had to be close enough, no farther back than Cavic’s hip, or maybe six or seven tenths of a second.

The semifinals here Friday set the stage. Cavic touched in that then-record 50.01. Cavic turned at the 50 in that race in 22.83.

Phelps, swimming in the other semifinal, turned in 23.87. No matter that Cavic was a second better. Phelps’ had turned — in the semifinal — 17-hundredths faster than Phelps had turned in the Beijing final. He was ready to rock.

All day Saturday, in advance of the final, Bowman said, Phelps seemed particularly on his A game. And then — there was almost disaster.

In the warm-up pool about an hour before the race, Phelps and Australia’s Cate Campbell collided, head on head. She said she just “laughed it off,” nothing a couple aspirin couldn’t take care of. He, though, felt woozy for a spell, the vision in his left eye blurry. There was worry he might have seriously strained his shoulder.

After a few minutes, Bowman said to Phelps, you know, you don’t have to race.

Phelps said, I’m racing.

At the start, the crowd was perfectly hushed. Thousands of people, eerily silent.

The beep went off. The crowd exploded in an enormous roar. Phelps, executing the plan perfectly, got off to a brilliant start — his reaction time only 69-hundredths of a second. Cavic was off the blocks in 72-hundredths.

They churned toward the far wall.

Cavic touched in 22.69. Crazy fast.

Phelps touched in 23.36. The fastest he has ever gone.

Cavic was ahead, true. But only by 67-hundredths of a second.

Not enough.

The race, essentially, was over. Phelps was going to win.

“I felt so good coming off the wall,” Phelps said. “My kick-off felt so good. I actually saw [Cavic's] splashes out of the left side of my eye, his splashes coming over — telling me I was getting closer and closer.”

Over the back half, Phelps went 26.46. Cavic went 27.26.

Afterward, on the medals stand, there were handshakes all around.

Asked at a news conference after that if he had any regrets about all the talking he had done, Cavic said, no.

“When I race Michael Phelps,” he said, “I want him at his best.

“Because only when he is at his best can I feel I got the race I would have wanted. Of course, winning is pretty important to me. But I want the atmosphere, I want the experience to be everything it was tonight.

“There are no regrets. I did my best. He did something huge. Huge.”

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