Michael Phelps swims the last individual event of his incomparable career Friday night. Among those he will face in the 100-meter butterfly is the man who dared to try and draw a mustache on Phelps' Mona Lisa performance in Beijing, Milorad Cavic.
You remember that race. Phelps, going for the seventh of his record eight gold medals, desperately churning from behind. Cavic, having brazenly stared down Phelps before the start, tenaciously holding on to what looked like one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.
Only it wasn't. The scoreboard told a truth that the naked eye could not discern: In the final stroke of the race, Phelps somehow hit the wall first (or hardest) to beat Cavic by a single one-hundredth of a second.
If Phelps' great eight golds was the finest achievement in Olympic history, this was the most memorable of those races.
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Hoping for a second act that comes close to the first is a bit much to ask. But Cavic, seeded fourth this Games to Phelps' first and doing considerably less talking than in China four years ago, will give it a shot.
"I'm four years older, have a lot less hair on my head and have a back operation behind me," Cavic told Yahoo! Sports. "I'm pretty lucky to be here. But I'm ready to do my best, and if I win a medal I think I'll be the first-ever guy to win a medal after a back operation."
After enduring back pain so severe that he couldn't tie his own shoes or dry off his lower legs after swimming, Cavic had surgery on a herniated disc in 2010. After being out a year, he was a shell of his former self at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai. But he reunited with his old coach at California, Mike Bottom, who is now at Michigan, and began putting the pieces back together in 2012.
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In the European championships in the spring, Cavic swam a 51.45-second 100 butterfly that signaled his return to contender status. He turned in a 51.66 in the semifinals of the event here in London, and may just be saving up for a shot at the king in the final.
But with Phelps burning a 50.82 leg in the semis, followed by South African 200-meter winner Chad le Clos (51.42) and American Tyler McGill (51.61), the sprinty Cavic will have to find some staying power.
It's almost certain that Cavic will be first at the 50-meter turn, perhaps with McGill closest to him. From there you can expect Phelps to turn in a patented back-half rush along with le Clos, who is more suited to the 200 fly than the 100.
Phelps looked impossible to beat in the semifinals on Thursday night, but he remembers how close he came to losing to Cavic four years ago in this event.
"Hopefully I'm not as far behind this time."
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