olympics

Catching Up with Milorad Cavic, Who Beat Michael Phelps But Lost Gold by the Force of a Finger

"I'm not sure how comfortable I would have felt having the gold medal that everyone else in the world believed was not mine." Even eight years later, losing gold to Phelps still stings for Cavic.

by Aimee Berg
Aug 8 2016, 1:56pm

DANIEL DAL ZENNARO/EPA

Eight years ago in Beijing, Michael Phelps became the first person to ever win eight gold medals at a single Olympics. But gold No. 7 in that Olympics will always carry an asterisk.

During the 100-meter butterfly final on August 16, 2008, Phelps came from behind and produced a riveting finish. When he poked his head up from the water, his coach thought he lost. His mother thought he lost. Phelps himself wasn't sure. Eventually, Phelps was declared the winner by 0.01 of a second.

Milorad Cavic of Serbia seemed to have touched the wall first. And, in fact, he did—just not hard enough to have registered on the touchpad of the Omega timing system.

Omega confirmed this later.

"There is a big, big, big difference ... between touching that pad and pushing the pad," said Omega Timing's general manager at the time, Christophe Berthaud. "It's for sure—and the video also shows it—that Cavic touched the pad before Phelps, but he was sliding while Phelps was rushing on the pad ... and the difference between them is really a hundredth of a second. All the records ... in the system show this."

So the Cal-Berkeley grad took second and was supremely gracious, though he later admitted, over a beer, to Mouthpiecesports.com that "I would give my left testicle" for a rematch.

At the 2012 London Olympics, Cavic got his 100m-butterfly rematch. He finished with the third-fastest time but no medal because Phelps took gold and two other men tied for second place, bumping Cavic to fourth.

Rio will mark the first time in 20 years that Cavic won't be competing in the Games, and Rio could be Phelps' finale. So what's Cavic's take on that race now?

We recently found Milo in a philosophical mood, in Serbia where he lives with his wife and two-month-old son, Maksim.

VS: After eight years of hindsight, do you feel you won that race?

MC: I never really addressed it, never really talked about it. For me, I very much embrace the fact that what was done cannot be changed. But after that, everybody told me I was cheated out of the gold. Everybody.

How does that make you feel?

For me, personally, had I been in Phelps' position, I'm not sure how comfortable I would have felt having the gold medal that everyone else in the world believed was not mine. I'm not taking a shot to Michael. I mean, Michael had already won 11 gold medals before that race. Michael Phelps is the one Olympic athlete who just might have possibly lost all sensitivity to the gold medal itself.

Meaning what?

When he looks at his Olympic medals, he doesn't know which goes for which race. It doesn't say 100 fly or 400 IM. A win is a win. But for me, had I the gold medal, I'm not sure how comfortable I would feel with everyone believing that it was not my gold medal. And I say that with a lot of reservation because Michael Phelps is not just any Olympian, and what I just told you could seem very negative. I'm not saying Phelps is living a lie. I'm not saying I think I lost. I'm just saying that if he was the same as me—someone who had much less success—he may be more sensitive to everybody telling him, "Hey, do you believe that you deserve that Olympic gold?"

How do you feel about your silver medal?

It's one of my most precious possessions. It's in the States in my safe. A couple times per year, I would look at it just for my own self, outside of appearances.

This is what it looks like to "lose" by 0.01 of a second. Cavic is on the right. Photo by PATRICK B. KRAEMER/EPA

Have you kept in touch with Phelps? What's your relationship like?

I think I had about 15 minutes of one-on-one time with him throughout my whole career. We were always at opposite ends of the United States or the world. The only time that I even really had to talk to him was right before the medal ceremony, waiting to be called out.

Do you remember that conversation? Or any conversation?

If ever there's a time to talk about something more serious than "Where are you drinking tonight?" it's definitely not right before the medal ceremony. There were two other attempts at different events. And he would say, "Hey, I appreciate the call," but he was always busy. And I understand.

What would you have wanted to say to him?

I would have liked most to just get to know the person. If you ever looked at any of Michael Phelps' interviews, there are maybe two or three that I actually believed were his words. Every other interview I've read, I kind of felt like he was coached. I think the most human interviews that he ever gave were the ones when he was in a lot of trouble—the DUI or after he was caught smoking pot. He was a corporate guy, is what I'm saying—just because that was what was required of him.

You ended up sticking around for the London Olympics. Was the Beijing race a factor?

Yes. Had I won the Olympic gold, I believe I would have retired that year.

What were you still hungry for? Gold? Or the feeling of racing well after back surgery in 2010?

More so the hunger of proving that I was not washed up. Medical professionals and coaches told me I would never race again. So for me, it became less about winning Olympic gold and more about proving everyone wrong by winning an Olympic medal. Any medal would have sufficed.

In the big rematch—the 100 butterfly final in London—you were close but no medal.

The night before the finals was the second time that I had ever prayed. I'm not very religious, but I said, "God, please, when I finish this race, win or lose, medal or no medal, please give me peace, let me move on with my life. The next day, I raced my race, looked at the clock, and saw fourth. And I was like: Huh. I looked for first; there was Michael Phelps. I said OK. I looked for second; I saw Chad le Clos. I looked for third and I could not find third place. At the bottom of the scoreboard was—and is—one of my greatest training partners and best friends from Russia, Yevgeny Korotyshkin. He also had No. 2 next to his name. When there's a tie for second, they eliminate third place, and I was fourth. I saw Yevgeny celebrating. I looked back at the scoreboard, and I was numb. For me, being fourth is the first true loser. With eighth place, at least you know that you never had a damn chance.

Two or three weeks after that race, I still felt nothing. I went to a therapist. He said, "Do you want to get back and race?" I said, "No, not at all." He said, "Did you feel like you gave everything that you could have given?" I said, "Yeah, I do." He was like, "I think God answered your prayer. He gave you peace." All of a sudden, my eyes opened. I realized it's out of me. That numbness was really just that shock.

What role, if any, does swimming have in your life now?

I swim two times per week but I gained 20 pounds after my career because I refuse to sacrifice, and bread is one of my favorite things. I own two swimming shops in Serbia. I also started a swimming school in Serbia, but after it closed in 2014, I returned to the States and found a job in financial services. I had a very good year, but I was not passionate about life insurance and investment. Along the way, I found out that my girlfriend had become pregnant, as we hoped. Now is the time to find something new, and here I am, back in Serbia, searching for something which I can create a career out of.

One of the biggest troubles is that lot of athletes are lost later in your career. It's astronaut syndrome. You went to the moon. You come back knowing more than you ever knew. And you know you'll never go back. How do you find more meaning after having gone to the Olympics or gone to the moon? For me, I'm still searching for that.

If Rio is to be Phelps' last Olympics, what do you hope for him after these Games?

I hope for him the same thing that I hope for myself: that he finds something that's going to make him happy, something that gives our lives meaning. I think that he's got the capacity to be brilliant in something else. The question is will the world let him find that? Will the world let him move on as a person, as a human being?

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