BEIJING – A swimmer wins with the slightest touch. One straining hand. One lonely finger. The barest graze can be the difference between almost everything and everything.
Michael Phelps grazed the pool wall this morning with two outstretched hands in the 100-meter butterfly final, and while that touch would barely register on a bar bouncer’s chest, with it, Phelps moved aside a granite block that no swimmer has been able to budge in 36 years: Mark Spitz. Seven.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Phelps told NBC.
Where does that leave the rest of us? In maybe the greatest finish of any Olympic swimming race in history, considering what hung in the balance, Phelps came from behind down the stretch and out-touched Milorad Cavic from Serbia by – hold your breath – one one-hundredth of a second to tie Spitz’s magical record of seven golds in one Games. The biggest stage is shared now. The pantheon has a new tenant.
One hundredth of a second? They don’t keep score any closer than that. One hundredth of a second? It is thinner than rice paper. Less time than a thought.
“Michael (Cavic) said it would be good for swimming and good for me if he won,” Phelps told NBC, “and that fired me up more than anything.”
If so, Phelps should give Cavic a big hug.
And maybe a check. A comeback for the ages
Because for the first time since this long Olympic quest began, Phelps truly looked in danger of losing it in an individual race. He was next-to-last at the halfway point, still behind out of the turn, still behind with 30 meters left. Then Phelps began to turn it on. With arms churning overhead, body undulating wildly under the water, he pulled even with the leaders. One lane over, Cavic was still going strong. Five yards shorter, and it’s likely Cavic would have gold and Phelps silver.
But in one of those replays they will show forever, Phelps took one last stroke, a decision that appeared to have cost him the medal – except that Cavic rode his outstretched arms to the wall, a decision that may have cost him instead.
Touch! Phelps popped from the water, turned to the screen along with everyone in the National Aquatics Center, and when he saw the results he smashed the water with his fists in pure exultation and absolute relief.
“I had no idea the race was that close,” Phelps, still breathing hard, told NBC. “I’m lucky to get a hand out there first.”
A hand? Try a fingernail. The race against a legend
One hundredth of a second? On such things can Olympics turn. Phelps has done all he can on his own now, five individual races, five golds, two more from the relays. He has one race to go, the 400-meter medley relay Sunday morning (tonight Detroit time), and if his teammates do as well as he has, Phelps will be singular on every level of Olympic golden history.
At the very least, Spitz now has company. He no longer stands alone, hands on hips in his bathing suit, smiling under his mustache, seven medals around his neck. Think about how long that photograph has been the definition of Olympic deity. Not one Games, not two, or three, or four, but nine. Nine Olympics? Nine armies of network TV cameras, desperate to invent new heroes, yet no one has been able to equal him?
Until today. Spitz now is looking across at a taller, more muscular, more collegiate-looking icon, with a Jimmy Stewart smile and ear buds feeding him music.
And soon Spitz could be looking up.
“I think in my dreams I always wanted it,” Phelps said, when asked by NBC if he ever thought he’d pull this off. “ And I guess believing all along I could do it goes a long way.”
So does a fingernail. Just long enough to push you out of the pool, into the air and up into the clouds of seventh heaven.