By the Smallest of Margins, a Magnificent Seventh for Phelps

By the Smallest of Margins, the Greatest of Victories

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, August 17, 2008; Page D12

BEIJING Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

Michael Phelps, a fingernail from history, lost. The dream of eight gold medals in one Olympics had dissolved into mere fantasy here on Saturday morning. In race No. 7, that crap-out number just before the lucky Chinese No. 8, Phelps failed by a hair's width. His coach knew it and hung his head. His mother's face showed it, too. Worst of all, your own eyes, right above the finish line, knew the truth best of all.

Milo Cavic, the Serb who had said the previous day that it would be "good for swimming" if Phelps lost, had stared down the American, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, for the last 30 seconds before their 100-meter butterfly race. Then Cavic led every inch of the way, by half-a-body length at the turn.

At the final wall, Cavic seemed to win, his arms straight out, his last stroke over, reaching for the electronic timer. Meanwhile, Phelps "chopped off" his last normal stroke, abbreviated it so that he could lift himself even further above the water and make one last desperate midair lunge, sending his arms rocketing above water, as if determined to shatter every finger on the wall.

Then came the wait, the agony, as the jammed Water Cube, filled with tension to the brim, was ready to turn a far darker shade of blue. Thousands believed this Olympics had lost its moment for the ages, its athlete about whom we would tell tales of unsurpassed glory as long as we lived.

The cursed electronic timer, it's never wrong. Our eyes can be. It never has been. And surely it would confirm every fear.

Yet it didn't. Phelps has the Omega endorsement deal locked up for life. The Olympic chronometer of choice told the tale.

On the scoreboard flashed the numbers that will be shown as long as they have Olympics, the numbers that will eclipse even the memory of Jason Lezak's winning leg in the 4x100 freestyle relay to win for America and Phelps by .08 of a second. That win was by the length of a hand. A hand, what's that? For a man to set a gold medal record that stretches the limits of athletic endurance, he should win at least one race because he didn't cut his fingernails that morning.

There it was: in Lane 5, Phelps: 50.58, Olympic record. In Lane 4, Cavic, 50:59.

By one-hundredth of a second, a distance that Cavic said was "maybe shaving [the tips of] your fingers," the American giant won his seventh gold medal of these Olympics to tie Mark Spitz's record, set in 1972. No one has ever won more. But on Sunday, in a relay the United States is almost sure to win, Phelps should stand alone.

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