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London 2012: Milorad Cavic, Serbian Swimmer Extraordinaire

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You may not recognize the name Milorad Čavić. But if you follow the Olympics in any capacity then you almost assuredly know who he is. In case you need a reminder, above is a somewhat famous picture to jog your memory.

Yep. I remember watching this race with some seriously conflicted feelings. On the one hand, Michael Phelps is a countryman, and was attempting to achieve an unprecedented feat. That’s something you want to see both as an American and as a fan of athletic achievement.

On the other hand, I knew that Čavić was a Cal grad, a Californian born and raised with dual citizenship. At that point, Phelps had already won plenty of gold medals – why not let our fellow Bear earn his own share of the spoils? Surely that wouldn’t be a crazy thing to root for?

I still find the finish to the race fascinating. Phelps touches the wall first because he happens to be stroking forward with his arms at the exact right moment. If the race had been over 99.5 meters, Čavić would have won. If the race had been over 100.5 meters, Čavić probably would have won. But it’s the 100 meter butterfly, and that allowed for one of the iconic finishes in Olympic history. Hell, it was so close that there’s still some argument about who actually won the race. But Čavić, to his credit, was all class:

People, this is the greatest moment of my life. If you ask me, it should be accepted and we should move on. I’ve accepted defeat, and there’s nothing wrong with losing to the greatest swimmer there has ever been

Which makes me want to root for him even more. Damn.

Of course, we shouldn’t let one race overshadow everything else Čavić has accomplished in the pool. At Cal he was an All-American in multiple events every year and was a mainstay on Cal's typically excellent relay teams. Since then he’s been amongst the best in the world at the 100m butterfly for quite some time, and briefly held the world record in both the short and long course* versions of the race. In May of this year he finished first in the European Aquatics championship with a time of 51.45 seconds, a sign that he’s still a force to be reckoned with in his 3rd Olympic games.

That time may not seem especially gaudy if you glance at World Record times, but that’s because the rules have been changed regarding what kind of swimsuits can be worn in competitions. As a result, winning times at major events have fallen back to pre-Beijing levels, and a time in the low 51 second range may well be what it takes to win gold in London.

When Čavić arrives in London he’ll have to compete with the usual group of talented Americans – Ryan Lochte, Tyler McGill . . . and Michael Phelps, who took first at the US Olympic Trials with a time of 51.14. The stage has been set for a reprise of 2008’s blockbuster race, and I’m sure NBC will play up the rivalry, real or imagined.

So, Cal fans . . . are you rooting for Phelps or Čavić?

*The short course is a pool with 25 meter lengths, the long course is a pool with 50 meter lengths. Short courses tend to result in slightly faster times . . . because swimmers can kick off from the wall more often? I dunno, I’m a runner. I take to water like I take to Stanford red.