ROME, Aug. 1 – As if this whole week hadn’t been enough of a headache for Michael Phelps entering Saturday’s 100-meter butterfly final at the world swimming championships, Phelps broke his goggles on another swimmer’s head during a head-to-head collision just more than an hour before the race.
With his brain already resounding from a week of taunts and challenges from his main rival, Serbia’s Milorad Cavic, Phelps found himself with busted goggles across his forehead, blurred vision in his left eye, a sore left shoulder and a seriously panicked coach, who screamed “no!” as he saw the collision unfold. And then Bob Bowman summoned a doctor.
As it turned out, the only man in need of medical attention Saturday might have been Cavic, who once again got chased down from behind in a thriller of a final by Phelps, who won in 49.82 seconds, going 0.19 under the world record Cavic had set Friday night. With the crowd at the Foro Italico standing, stomping and thundering, Cavic was second in 49.95, also sliding under the world record of 50.01.
Phelps, fourth at the turn, charged past Cavic over the race’s final meters.
“You can tell by my celebration that satisfied me a little bit,” Phelps said. “I set it up perfectly. That was exactly what I wanted to do.”
When Phelps saw he had won, he ripped off his swimcap, threw up his arms with defiance and tugged on the front of his old-model Speedo LZR swimsuit — which he later admitted was a response to Cavic’s offer Friday to buy Phelps a more technically advanced suit if he couldn’t get one for free.
“There are always things that fire me up and motivate me,” Phelps said. “Sometimes it’s a comment. Sometimes it’s what people do. That’s just how I tick.”
Earlier in the week, Cavic said he wouldn’t feel bad about beating Phelps in a faster speedsuit because, he claimed, a timing error had robbed him of a victory at the Olympic 100 fly final last year. In that race, Phelps topped Cavic by .01 of a second, but Cavic claimed he actually touched the wall first.
“The media has a way of taking one tiny little thing and making it into something it’s really not, especially the American media,” said Cavic, who wore the popular Arena X-Glide suit. “I’ve always said good things about Michael. I just looked at the scenario of the suits as it was, and made a few suggestions. ….. I don’t see how I said anything wrong.”
Phelps declined to comment on Cavics’s comments throughout the week, saying he would let his swimming do the talking, and it did. His world record was one of four set Saturday, bringing the meet total to 39.
Cavic, a notoriously fast starter, hit the turn first in 22.69 seconds, but Phelps, a notoriously slow starter, did not trail as much as usual. He reached the first 50 in 23.36, which he said was the fastest split he had ever posted. He said he knew he would catch Cavic at that point.
And Cavic seemed to know it, too.
“I knew if I was going to win this race, I needed to have a much bigger lead in front of Michael,” Cavic said. “It was too close for comfort. Michael Phelps is Michael Phelps. He does what he does, and he did.”
Spain’s Rafael Muñoz finished third in 50.41 seconds and Venezuela’s Albert Subirats was fourth in 50.79.
When the eight finalists took the blocks Saturday night, a thick silence fell over the venue. Bowman, rattled over the head-smashing incident before the race — not to mention other trying incidents in a long week for Phelps — found himself hesitant to walk out. Phelps, who has won four gold medals and one silver here, has, by his standards, still had a rough week.
He had lost one American record (in the 100 freestyle to David Walters) and three world records: the 200 freestyle to Germany’s Paul Biedermann, who crushed Phelps in the 200 free final; the 200 individual medley to American Ryan Lochte (Phelps didn’t swim the race this year); and, on Saturday, his world record in the 100 butterfly semifinals to Cavic as Phelps stood poolside.
With all of that weighing on him, Bowman found himself lingering by the televisions underneath the stands longer than usual.
“This was, ‘Honestly, I just don’t know if I want to see this or not,’.” Bowman said.
When Phelps had banged full-speed into the head of Australian swimmer Cate Campbell, Bowman had run to get Phelps new goggles, and Phelps continued to warm up — though Bowman insisted that he move to an empty lane.
“It kind of shocked me,” Phelps said. “It took the wind out of me a little bit.”
Phelps emerged from the pool and informed Bowman he was having vision problems.
“He said, ‘I’m seeing blurry out of my left eye,’.” Bowman said. “I said, ‘Maybe that will make you hit the wall perfectly because you never do with regular vision.’ ”
Campbell also was briefly disoriented, Australian media director Ian Hanson said.
“No hard feelings, but the Australian version is that it was Michael’s fault,” Hanson said.
It might have been the only mistake Phelps made Saturday night.
“I did my best,” Cavic said. “He did something huge.”