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Hitting the Wall

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Milorad Cavic lost the 100-meter butterfly to Michael Phelps by one one-hundredth of a second. Or maybe he won and there was a timing error. It depends on who you ask, what parts of the internet you read, and how deep down the rabbit hole you go—a place Cavic still finds himself 12 years after one of the closest and most controversial races in history.

Michael Weinstein

The first question I asked Milorad Cavic was simple and short. It would be a while before I’d have the occasion to ask another. Cavic talked for 12 straight minutes after that—which was fair enough considering he’s thought about the answer for 12 straight years.

“There really aren’t too many days when everything is up and going,” Cavic began, “when I’m not reminded about it.”

Cavic—Milo for short now, Mike for short back then—remembers everything about the 2008 Beijing Olympics and one day in particular. He remembers walking out of the ready room in the back of the Beijing Aquatics Center—better known as the Water Cube—and onto the deck for the 100-meter butterfly. The air was syrupy. He could practically feel its texture. He wore a white swim cap and a white warm-up jacket with a popped red collar, both stamped with the Serbian flag. (He was born in Anaheim, did his college swimming at the University of California, and has dual American and Serbian citizenship.) He remembers rising from a chair and waving to the Serbian fans when the announcer called his name, his goggles already in place over his eyes. And he remembers climbing onto the block in lane four, his toes gripped to the edge of the platform, before launching himself into the pool for what would become one of the most exciting—and controversial—events in Olympic history.

Cavic went out fast. Cavic always went out fast. The idea was to get so far out in front that, when his pace inevitably slowed, the pack wouldn’t catch up. The strategy had worked for him at the European Championships the year before. It looked as if it would work in Beijing too. From the start, through the 50-meter turn, through the three-quarter mark, it was Cavic out ahead. As he approached the wall, picking up his head ever so slightly and gliding in for the final touch, his arms and legs were shot, and his eyes were blurry. He felt like he was going to pass out from oxygen deprivation. As he gasped for air, Cavic thought he had just realized a lifelong goal and won Olympic gold. It certainly seemed that way to the mother of the presumed second-place finisher, who was initially caught on camera looking disappointed that her son had lost—until the results were posted. When they were, it was not Milo Cavic who was declared the winner. It was Michael Phelps. The difference in their times was one one-hundredth of a second.

Cavic wanted to know whether I’d seen Mad Max: Fury Road. What might initially seem like a non sequitur or a digression was fairly typical of the way he speaks. There was usually a point, but it sometimes took a beat—or several—to get to it. This was in late June. By then I was used to his eccentricities, even fond of them.

Months before this, well after midnight, I had stumbled bored and bleary-eyed upon a replay of the race on the Olympic Channel. I did not know we had the Olympic Channel, and I had long ago stopped thinking about the 100-meter butterfly in Beijing. Had Cavic won, had he climbed atop the podium and listened to the Serbian national anthem with a gold medal draped around his neck, awash in the pomp and pageantry of an Olympic ceremony, it is unlikely this story would exist. But Cavic did not win, or at least he was not declared the winner, which is the kind of subtle difference that breathes life into the memory of a race that should have faded long ago. And so I sat there that evening in my living room, lights off, illuminated by the pale blue glow of the television, rewinding the finish over and over, unsure who had won—and ever more curious about the man who was told he’d lost.

What started as an accidental late-night screening mushroomed into an obsession. Deep dives on old articles about the race gave way to scouring fringe fan message boards fixated on the topic. I researched timing systems, talked to athletes, coaches, reporters, and photographers who were there, and interviewed conspiracy experts and sports psychologists. And over the course of several months, I spoke with Cavic at length. Always at length. He’s loquacious and talks in a stream of consciousness that unspools itself in giant paragraphs as big as his old Olympic dreams.

Right. So Fury Road. Had I seen it? I had. Remember the skinheads? He called them the skinheads. In the movie they’re referred to as “war boys.” They spend the whole film chasing after Charlize Theron and trying to kill her. They die in all sorts of spectacular ways. He nodded. That’s them. But their real goal, Cavic figured, is to be seen by the (admittedly deranged and murderous) leader they’re trying to impress.

“The dream is to be acknowledged by the gods—or our peers,” Cavic said, connecting the dots for me. “To me, the acknowledgment of my peers and them saying, ‘Milo, I see you. Regardless of the result. Holy shit, I see you.’”

Everyone saw Phelps at those Olympics. Everyone always saw Phelps. His win in the 100-meter butterfly was the closest of his career, and it resulted in his winning one of eight gold medals in Beijing, the most by any athlete at any single Olympics. Phelps broke the record of another American swimmer, Mark Spitz, who’d won seven golds at the 1972 Games in Munich. Phelps was already barreling toward becoming the best Olympic swimmer ever—and arguably the greatest Olympian ever—but that one victory, more than any other, cemented his legacy.

Lauterstein / Milorad Cavic / Michael Phelps
Cavic and Phelps prepare to take the blocks in the men’s 100-meter butterfly final at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing
Photo : Henri Szwarc / Icon Sport via Getty Images

Imagine it. One one-hundredth of a second—the slimmest margin measured in the Olympics, something akin to a single flap of a hummingbird’s wings—was plenty long enough to alter history. It changed Cavic’s life—much more than it did for Phelps, who was famous and accomplished and rich before and after, and would have remained so even if he’d have lost. Everyone remembers Phelps winning the 100-meter butterfly in dramatic, flashy fashion. But … who did he beat again? Somehow, Cavic has been largely written out of the story even while remaining a vital part of the plot.

There are people, then and now, who believe Cavic won—or at least touched the wall first, which is different from triggering the timer first. The ensuing and continuing controversy over that crucial distinction has only helped grow the mythology around the race and Phelps. In 2008, after the result, Cavic said he was “pretty cool with the whole thing.” All these years later, though, he told me unequivocally, “I won the race. I touched the wall first.”

But that is not what Cavic wanted to focus on during our chats. In multiple conversations that spanned several months, he insisted he did not agree to speak with me to convince people he won. That wasn’t the point. “It’s behind us,” Cavic said. “It’s 12 years behind us. It really doesn’t matter.”

The truth, he said, doesn’t need to be about who won or lost the race. That’s the binary component already entered into the record book. In the 2010s, Cavic spent several years living in Serbia, surrounded by people who hailed him as a hero. Yes this and yes that and whatever you want, Milo. After a while, he didn’t want it anymore. He moved back to the United States and started over. He’s 36 now. The crop of jet-black hair he had in 2008 has since thinned and receded. He packed on weight. Got married. Had a son. He’s the head coach of King Aquatic Club in Covington, Washington, just outside Seattle. One of his swimmers is headed to Stanford. He thinks she could be an Olympian. His aura as a world-class athlete is long gone. They just see him as “Milo the coach” and “sometimes forget that I’ve been to the moon.” He’s happy. He wouldn’t want anything to do with who he was back then, because he was “young and dumb,” and he likes who he’s become—even while he struggles to process how he got here. Because while Cavic always dreamed of diving into the pool and achieving Olympic greatness, he never fathomed the lasting ripple effects of this race in particular.

“One thing that bothers me,” Cavic said, “is I’m pegged to a guy, and probably will be pegged to a guy for the rest of my life, and I never knew him. Why did he never want to spend five minutes with me?”

For Cavic, that’s what really happened in that one one-hundredth of a second. That fleeting moment was responsible for a lot of things—joy and anger, still-lingering conspiracy theories and begrudging acceptance, bitter accusations and fond memories, a gold medal awarded to one guy who already had a bunch of them and a silver to someone who didn’t. But most of all it forever tethered one man to another who barely acknowledged him at all.

Milorad Cavic
Cavic and Phelps take their marks
Photo : Henri Szwarc / Icon Sport via Getty Images

Mark Schubert and Bob Bowman watched together as Phelps and Cavic came into the wall that day, side by side in neighboring lanes. Schubert was the head coach for USA Swimming; Bowman was Phelps’s longtime personal coach.

“I just remember standing next to Bob Bowman, and he said, ‘Oh no, he lost,’” Schubert recalled. Schubert thought the same thing. “Then he looked up at the scoreboard and said, ‘Oh my God.’ It was just one of those Olympics where everything was gonna go Michael’s way.”

Schubert figured there would be an immediate protest launched by the Serbian side challenging the results. Mike Bottom assumed the same thing. He coached Cavic at Cal, and he was in attendance as a coach for the Croatian team. Bottom immediately sought out Branislav Jevtic, Serbia’s chief of mission for the Olympics. “I had to grab hold of [him] and basically put him against the wall and say, ‘You have to protest this,’” said Bottom, now the head coach at the University of Michigan.

That’s what happened. Initially. In the control room at the Beijing Olympics, officials monitored races and had the capacity to roll back footage in the event of disputed results. That process was supervised by Omega, the official timer of the games—and a longtime sponsor of Michael Phelps.

There are differing accounts about what happened next. Schubert, Bottom, and Cavic all agree that Schubert marched into the control room, where Schubert said Omega refused to show anyone the footage and that officials from the company maintained the system operated correctly. Good enough for Schubert, who said he left—and left Bottom behind in the room.

“Bullshit,” Bottom said when I relayed Schubert’s recollection, insisting he was never inside the control room. “That’s bullshit. That’s total bullshit. That’s absolutely bullshit. I was protesting. But they were not letting me in that room. They did not let me in that room. Only Schubert went to see it. Now, there might have been other people in there, but I sure as hell wasn’t in there. If I had been in there, I wouldn’t have the feelings I have today. I would have seen the actual finish from the Omega cameras, which no one, even the next day, got to see.”

That last part became a publicity problem that fueled the ensuing controversy. Omega and FINA, the governing body of international swimming, refused to release the footage. At first, Omega told The New York Times it would provide footage to journalists, only to reverse course and claim “FINA decided not to release any timekeeping images to the media.” According to the Times, a reporter from the International Herald Tribune tracked down Cornel Marculescu, then FINA’s executive director. Marculescu was defiant and declared that Phelps was “the winner no doubt” and stated, incredibly and on the record, “Even if you could see the pictures, I don’t know how you could use them.”

The Serbians dropped the protest. Jevtic was quoted by the AP saying “they examined the video and I think the case is closed. The video says [Phelps] finished first.” When I ran that past Cavic, he didn’t believe Jevtic ever said it and asked me which outlet reported the story. I told him the Associated Press.

“Of course,” Cavic replied. “It was an American writer.”

OLYMPICS - SWIMMING
Cavic gets into the lead early
Photo by Joe Rimkus Jr./Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

That was the first time I encountered Cavic’s distrust of the American media and the legend it helped weave around Phelps. The way he saw it, the way he sees it, Phelps was the obvious hero in the States—and every good hero needs a villain. He always felt he was treated better by European reporters, who were less inclined to genuflect for Phelps. It’s part of why he moved to Serbia for a spell. In America, Cavic was the guy who lost to an icon, if he was remembered at all. In Serbia, he was the real winner. Everyone knew it and no one dared doubt it.

“I do not believe [Jevtic] said that,” Cavic continued. (Multiple attempts to reach Jevtic for this story were unsuccessful. The author of the piece, an AP reporter named Paul Newberry, said he didn’t recall where or how he got the Jevtic quote, but added, “I can assure you we didn’t make it up.”) “It’s not out of friendship. Why did FINA not release the video footage right away? Again, this is turning into a conspiracy theory, which I don’t, I really hope this doesn’t become. I don’t lose any sleep over it. My biggest problem along the way is I’m Serbian, but I’m an American. I have dual citizenship. I’m living here. I don’t lose sleep over that. It’s just, man, you guys talk about wins and losses. For me, the gravity of this moment in time and swimming and what it meant to a lot of people and the work of art that it was—again, people that don’t understand sports, they chalk it up and talk about the finish. And it’s so convenient. What about everything else? What about all the other aspects of the race?”

In fairness to Cavic, I led him down Memory Lane and deposited him directly onto Conspiracy Corner. It’s a crowded space—then and now. A website—www.001ofasecond.com—dedicated to the race that offers theories about why Cavic actually won popped up in the aftermath of the event. The site has since been disabled, but there remain plenty of random forums and blog posts all over the internet dedicated to associated conspiracies about what really happened. I did not press Cavic on these sites specifically. He could be touchy at times about the conspiracy shit—even as he engaged on the conspiracy shit. Just my writing that and acknowledging it here might very well bother him.

“One of the things that I hate about your industry, you’re a storyteller,” Cavic said. “And after this, John, you’re gonna go and tell a story. What kind of story you’re going to tell, I don’t fucking know.”

If that sounds confrontational, it wasn’t. It was just Cavic. More than once he allowed that he signed up for this and wished me well. In classic Cavic fashion, he hoped our discussion might produce “that Valhalla, you-see-me kind of thing” out of a subject that remains “open-ended and ambiguous.” He said I could call myself an artist (I don’t) and paint the picture on my own.

“Where are the walls?” he mused, then left me to construct them.

Olympics Day 8 - Swimming
The finish that will be debated for generations
Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

One of the lingering theories about Phelps’s victory: that the pre-Olympics hype machine and the American media’s obsession with his quest to win eight medals and break the record made him too big to fail in Beijing. I was part of that mythmaking process. In advance of the 2008 Olympics, I spent time with Phelps while he trained in Columbus, Ohio, and profiled him as part of a cover story for Men’s Journal with fellow American Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte. (Several attempts to reach Phelps for this piece were unsuccessful.) We talked a lot back then about the narrative ballooning around him, and the pressure and expectations that come with being the clear favorite. He waved it off and said “favorites fall.”

“If there were any locks,” Phelps told me, “they’d cancel the Olympics and hand out the medals.”

In retrospect, those words double as handy tinfoil for anyone who might want to fashion a hat out of his result with Cavic—particularly because when FINA official Ben Ekumbo was later asked about the Serbian appeal being denied, he called Phelps “the greatest we’ve ever had” and added “he would have won the race no matter what.” Or, as Schubert put it, everything was gonna go Michael’s way.

Of all the conspiracy theories—ranging from notes about Cavic being consistently faster than Phelps in qualifying, to suspicions that NBC, FINA, and the IOC had more to gain if Phelps won—the most prominent is that Omega put in the fix for Phelps. What was good for him was good for the company financially, and vice versa. Omega first served as the official timer of the Olympics during the summer games in Los Angeles in 1932. The 2018 winter Olympics in South Korea marked the 28th time the company served in that capacity, and a 2017 contract extension with the IOC ensured Omega will remain the official timekeeper of the summer games through at least 2032. According to The Wall Street Journal, “commercial partnerships, which provide companies with an international marketing platform, account for more than 40 percent of Olympic revenue.”

Omega has been a sponsor of Phelps since 2004. The company stuck by him when others abandoned him over the years, including during two DUIs and when a British tabloid ran a photo of him smoking weed in 2009. There are varying estimates on Phelps’s net worth, but the Gazette Review reported that he earned roughly “$7 million annually in the years following Beijing, mainly from sponsorships and endorsements.”

“One thing that really bothers me in the end,” Cavic said, “[is] first, again, the professional contractual agreement which Omega has with Michael Phelps.”

Despite sending several press inquiries to Omega PR offices in Switzerland, Florida, and New York, the company never produced an executive to field my questions about the conflict of interest. Omega did, however, send along its official swimming press kit, titled “Omega Pool Precision.” Under the section on “Omega Swimming Ambassadors,” there’s a handsome, glossy photo of Phelps clad in khakis and a long sleeve denim shirt, the sleeves rolled up to reveal an icy Omega watch on his left wrist. To his right, the copy lists his many accomplishments, including how “in 2008 at the Beijing Games he dominated every event he entered winning a total of eight gold medals.” “Dominated” is doing a lot of heavy lifting for one particular race Phelps won by one one-hundredth of a second.

It doesn’t take much of a leap to go from that sort of propaganda to questioning whether the result was on the level. When I contacted Joseph Uscinski, he wasn’t surprised that doubts about the result have dogged the 2008 100-meter butterfly for more than a decade. Uscinski is an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami specializing in conspiracies. He didn’t know anything about the race, but he immediately flagged the fraction of time by which it was decided.

“When are you going to have people claiming they were cheated? When it’s close,” Uscinski said. To be clear, he was not suggesting that Cavic claimed he was cheated. And Cavic, despite our conspiracy conversations at my prompting, never said he had been. As Uscinski explained, it would be hard to spin a conspiracy web around the race had Phelps blown him out by three seconds. Uscinski drew a comparison to elections. If “one side wins by 80 million votes, it’s hard to say they rigged this.” But if it’s a tight election decided by a few thousand votes, that’s another thing. In that instance, it’s easy enough—even likely—that someone somewhere will posit “they did something shady here or there or in this state or in that state and that’s what tilted it one way or the other.”

Ian MacNicol Archive
Phelps celebrates his victory, won by the slimmest possible margin
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

When I explained the Omega-Phelps connection to Uscinski and asked whether something like that might give rise to conspiracies, he said that once people predisposed to them see “an incentive in place and something to be gained,” they might very well believe some sort of nefarious action was taken to bring about a desired outcome. But Uscinski was quick to call that a “reasoning fallacy.” That’s when he posited something we’ll refer to as the Grandma Scenario as a way to expose the flawed conspiracy thinking.

Say, Uscinski offered, grandma’s house burned down. And say her son stood to inherit money upon her demise. Well, you might wonder whether the son had something to do with it. But now let’s say her other children and grandchildren might also inherit some of her money after her death. That, Uscinski said, wouldn’t “mean every grandkid is chucking grandma down the stairs to get the money. Otherwise we’d have a lot of grandkids in jail.” Sometimes, Uscinski explained, “grandma just dies because she’s old and sick and it has nothing to do with anyone’s incentive.” In any case, Cavic might not like Omega’s relationship with Phelps, but he wasn’t blaming Phelps for the ensuing fallout, either.

“Don’t forget that this race was very controversial, and that’s why we’re still talking about it today,” Cavic said. “Let’s talk about that. Because it wasn’t up to [Phelps]. The way I feel is, it wasn’t up to him. The controversy had very little to do with him. He was just another horse in the race.”

The real culprit here, the cause of all this controversy as far as Cavic and Bottom are concerned, was the Omega timing system itself. It is also the official system of the NCAA and FINA and has a near stranglehold on global competitive swimming—which drives Bottom mad because he believes there are better timing pads on the market. He mapped out the mechanics—the system, which he called “the worst pads being made right now,” are activated when the swimmer touches the plastic exterior, sending a signal to a metal plate that stops the clock—but all you really need to know is that a certain amount of force is required to trigger the timer. According to Omega’s press booklet, “just 1.5-2.5 kg is enough to immediately stop the clock.” That works out to 3.3 to 5.5 pounds of pressure. In theory, it is possible that Cavic touched the pad first, but Phelps touched it harder when he threw in a half-chop stroke at the very end while Cavic glided into the wall. Schubert subscribed to that notion; he said, “We see light touches all the time.” Meanwhile, Bottom—who wanted it noted that there are “no sour grapes” and called Phelps “a friend of mine”—questioned whether there was an issue with that specific timer in that specific lane at those specific games.

Bottom had a good reason to remain curious. That very next day in 2008, in the very same lane 4 in which Cavic had glided to the wall, American Dara Torres placed second in the 50-meter freestyle. She also lost by one one-hundredth of a second. Torres won 12 Olympic medals over the course of five games from 1984 to 2008. It was the slimmest margin she had ever lost by in a career that spanned more than three decades.

The day before her race, Torres watched Cavic and Phelps and couldn’t believe the result. She kept thinking to herself that it had to be “the worst feeling in the world to lose that way.” She was right. For years, she said she was “consumed” by it and what she could have done differently. Where Cavic still thinks about picking up his head and gliding into the wall, Torres obsesses over whether she had touched the wall hard enough. In the final race she ever swam before retiring, the anchor leg of the 4x100 meter freestyle relay in Beijing, she made sure to hit the wall as hard as possible—and subsequently bent back her thumb, tearing a ligament. She had surgery after returning to the States.

“I was so flabbergasted,” Torres told me about losing by one one-hundredth of a second. “Every time I go to do a speech, that race is in my intro of me losing. It’s what I base my speech on—overcoming obstacles and giving it your all and being OK with the outcome if you do. It’s hard. It still kills me. I really thought that race was mine.”

It wasn’t. The result stood for Torres, just as it did for Cavic—which hasn’t stopped people from doubting what went down. As recently as five years ago, Mark Spitz openly questioned whether Phelps actually won the race. (Spitz even tried to spin it to his benefit: “I never realized my greatness,” he told Oprah, “until Michael Phelps broke my record.”) But even though Schubert initially thought Phelps lost, he said there was plenty of evidence that he did in fact win. Maybe FINA and Omega never released their video footage or photos, but what did it matter? After all, Schubert pointed out, legendary photographer Heinz Kluetmeier captured everything.

OLYMPICS - SWIMMING
Cavic and Phelps shake hands after the race
Photo by Joe Rimkus Jr./Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Kluetmeier’s photos—originally released in Sports Illustrated after the race—weren’t just physical proof for fans who believed Phelps won. The pictures were also masterworks, immediately taking their place in the pantheon alongside such singular shots as Muhammad Ali’s knockout of Sonny Liston and Dwight Clark’s catch.

The historic photos include frame-by-frame snapshots of Cavic and Phelps approaching the wall. One picture features an enhanced version of Cavic’s outstretched arms, with a caption that reads “as seen in this blowup from the previous frame, Cavic hasn’t touched the wall yet.” Upon first glance, that’s a reasonable interpretation. But the more I stared at the photo, the more I wasn’t so sure. Were Cavic’s fingers not on the wall—or were the shaded parts of his fingers touching the part of the wall that was painted a dark color, making it difficult to tell?

I wanted to talk to Kluetmeier about the pictures and the process of taking them from the bottom of an Olympic swimming pool, but through an intermediary I learned that he sadly suffered a stroke last year and lost his ability to speak. So I tracked down his longtime assistant, Jeff Kavanuagh, who worked with Kluetmeier for about 15 years and was at his side in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. In fact, it was Kavanaugh who placed their cameras at the bottom of the pool in the Water Cube using scuba gear. After the race, it took a beat before the photos downloaded; they were big files, and they didn’t instantly materialize. Like Schubert, Bowman, and Bottom, the photographers thought Phelps had lost after seeing the race in real time. Kluetmeier and Kavanaugh didn’t know they’d captured sports history until their picture of Phelps and Cavic at the wall presented itself on their computer.

“When I showed it to Heinz, I could tell he knew it would be important,” Kavanaugh recalled. “Obviously Heinz is so much more in depth when it comes to sports iconic photography. I think he knew immediately it would be big.”

And yet all these years later, Kavanaugh still isn’t sure that their photos reveal conclusive evidence that Phelps won. Kavanaugh said when you look at Phelps’s finger, the front part is “actually bent back a little bit, so you know he’s touching,” whereas “Cavic’s hadn’t bent yet.” But he conceded that doesn’t necessarily mean that Cavic wasn’t touching, and it doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t touch first.

“I cannot tell,” Kavanaugh said. “I can look at it and say he could be touching it or he could just be off of it.”

Kluetmeier used to tell Kavanaugh that photography is less about technicality than capturing the moment. In that respect, they outdid themselves. And here we return to the truth that Cavic most wanted to discuss, the part that has nothing to do with who touched first but rather the enduring splendor of their swim some 12 years ago. Because before the Kluetmeier pictures could be poetry, the race had to be.

“I go back to that Steve Prefontaine quote that a race is a piece of art that can be comprehended in as many ways as humanly possible,” Cavic said. “When you’re watching that race, whoever watched that race, they felt something. And that it affected you. It gave you some kind of feelings.”

He’d much rather dissect their collective craftsmanship and the associated emotions than who won or lost in “that one moment when the world stopped.” After all, precious few swimmers make the Olympics, and even fewer stand on the podium. Fewer still are separated by an almost immeasurable margin. That’s part of what still eats at Cavic. While so many of his peers acknowledged him, he feels as though one significant colleague never did and still hasn’t. Cavic has never talked to Phelps about the race—or anything, really. At the world championships the year after the Beijing Olympics, Cavic recalled staying in the same hotel as Phelps. He remembered knocking on Phelps’s door and saying, “Hey, man, let’s go grab a beer. Or let’s go grab a coffee.” Phelps was either too busy or didn’t want to. With other swimmers, guys he competed against or with, Cavic could text them or reach out on Facebook. That wasn’t the case with Phelps. Even when they were physically in the same room, Cavic said Phelps “made efforts, or didn’t make efforts, to talk to me for more than five minutes.”

“People ask me, what kind of guy is he? I have no idea what kind of guy he is,” Cavic said. “You have no clue who that is. You can call it a rivalry, but dammit, other rivalries they can talk. They can shoot the shit. We don’t need to talk about the race. I just want to know the person that, until the rest of my life, I’m going to be pegged to.”

Cavic yearns “for human connection.” The way he explained it, he and Phelps went on a journey together, one only the two of them truly understand. Being denied that connection has deeply frustrated Cavic. He still wonders “why did this guy never want to talk to me?” During one of our interviews, he openly daydreamed about calling Phelps. Maybe he’d tease Phelps and say, “I won that fucking race,” and maybe Phelps would bust his balls and say, “Nah, I got you.” Cavic called Phelps “the GOAT” and “the father of gods” and “one badass motherfucker.” For better or worse, and whether they liked it or not, they crossed paths in a meaningful way. Cavic acknowledged all of it, but he freely admitted he longs to have that same professional courtesy returned. He told me “that’s essentially what the greatest want”—to be “acknowledged by their peers.” All these years, Cavic has waited for a nod that never came, one to signal “I was a worthy adversary and that I just was as much a part of his story as he was a part of mine.”

“I can’t say why it bothers me,” Cavic said. It sounded to me like he just had.

OLYMPICS - SWIMMING
Cavic and Phelps on the medal podium
Photo by Joe Rimkus Jr./Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The first time we talked, Cavic asked whether I’d seen a different movie. Prometheus. It’s one of his favorites. I had not seen the Alien prequel, but that didn’t stop Cavic from talking about it. He went on for a while and encouraged me to research what it meant for Prometheus the god to give man fire, and at what cost. I did not know just how deep that particularly strange rabbit hole went until super nerd and super editor Chris Ryan directed me to a fascinating but bizarre 2012 blog post about the topic that he said “melted my mind and made people say ‘this is what the internet should be, man.’”

I have still not seen the movie because aliens are scary and I do not enjoy being scared, but I read the whole weird, wild post; the underlying mythology and theology hit a real pleasure center. The condensed and germane parts for our purposes: Prometheus the god helped create man and, as Cavic said, gave them fire—which pissed off the other gods and resulted in Prometheus being tortured for eternity. Tough beat. But Prometheus’s actions and subsequent sorrow also led to life being created. How you interpret that particular tale on the whole, Cavic said, is “open-ended.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” he went on, winding back to his eventual point as he had so many times before on so many other topics, “when people can create stories that are open-ended and kind of really leave a question mark.”

What Cavic was hinting at, if I may translate, was that the grandeur of the 2008 100-meter butterfly is rooted not in the result but rather in the sweeping and lasting conversation the race inspired. That’s probably easy for the guy who came in second to say, but he’s not necessarily wrong. Maybe Cavic won and maybe Cavic lost and maybe the touchpad worked and maybe Omega was against him all the while. But independent of all that, it was a hell of a race that will be remembered in various ways by various people for as long as we keep caring about things like swimming and the Olympics.

A few years back, Cavic told Vice that he hopes Phelps eventually “finds something that’s going to make him happy,” but he was unsure that “the world will let him move on as a person.” After Phelps recently wrote about his mental health and revealed that “this is the most overwhelmed” he’s ever felt, Cavic discussed it with me and questioned whether his old rival would ever be able to “move on with his life and pursue something else, which is outside the realm of sports or outside the realm of his former identity as an athlete.”

I asked Cavic the same thing, whether he thought he’d ever shake free of what happened 12 years ago. Because for all his insistence that he did not want to talk about the race, we spent an awful long time talking about the race. He thought about it for a moment and said he hopes that what he does with the rest of his life will eventually overshadow what he did that one summer day when he was 24 years old. He realizes that’s a big ask, maybe even impossible. Perhaps he’s doomed to discuss the race in perpetuity, forever considering what could have been but never was. But if that’s the case, if that one moment sentenced him to a lifetime on loop, it also created something that affected people and made them feel something then and now. There is a certain Promethean pain and sacrifice in that fate, but Cavic would no doubt see the beauty in it, too.

Cavic figured there might eventually be a 30 for 30–style documentary on Phelps, and he wondered how his part of the tale might be told. He had watched The Last Dance just like everyone else, and I put him onto Lance. One day, after screening The Last Days of Knight, he dashed off a short email to me. One part in particular had stuck with him: Toward the beginning of the film, the narrator explained that in originally reporting the story, he had been preoccupied with journalism and accuracy—and in the process, he missed the human story right in front of him.

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