Monday, August 16, 2010

August 16, 2008: Phelps at the wall

BEIJING - Freeze it. There's less than a body length left in the race, and Michael Phelps is losing. His impossible dream, his incredible attempt at a record eight gold medals in a single Olympics is hanging in the balance. He's won six of them already, and now, in his seventh event, he's trailing with less than a body length to go.

He trailed the whole race, too. He got off to a bad start, which is deadly for a 100-meter race. He spent most of the race trying to come from behind, but he was simply running out of room.

So what could he do? They were so close to the end that Milorad Čavić is already reaching for the wall, and he's leading. Everything Phelps has trained for, the physical and mental drain he went through training for eight events in one Olympics, and it was all coming down to this. They were both reaching for the wall, and Čavić was winning. So what could he do?

In real time, the decision came faster than the blink of an eye, coming so quickly that it couldn't have been anything more than pure instinct. Or pure luck. Whatever the reason, Michael Phelps didn't reach for the wall at the same time that Čavić did. Instead, he threw his arms up over his head for an extra half-stroke. It seemed foolish, downright idiotic, to try another stroke so close to the end. It seemed like a mistake when the results popped up showing Phelps had somehow won the race despite never leading it.

But then we saw the underwater camera, replaying the finish in slow motion. It showed Čavić reaching, stretching, but not appearing to move, and it showed Phelps swinging his arms one last time, inching ever more forward, and never reaching. Instead of reaching, he let his stroke finish with his fingertips touching the pad. It was remarkable to see in slow motion, stunning to see someone seemingly defy the laws of physics.

But he had done it, winning by the slimmest margin possible. And across America, people breathed again. Competition at its absolute best.

Michael Phelps Gold Medal #7 Mens 100m Butterfly Final Beijing

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