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A magnificent seventh by a fingernail's margin

WashPost: Michael Phelps equals Mark Spitz with an improbable, glorious moment in the 100 butterfly, an Olympic race for the ages.

Michael Phelps, a fingernail from history, lost. The dream of eight gold medals in one Olympics had dissolved into mere fantasy. In race No. 7, that crap-out number just before the lucky Chinese No. 8, Phelps failed by a hair's width. His coach knew it and hung his head. His mother's face showed it, too. Worst of all, your own eyes, right above the finish line, knew the truth best of all.

Milo Cavic, the Serb who had said the previous day that it would be "good for swimming" if Phelps lost, had stared down the American, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, for the last 30 seconds before their 100-meter butterfly race. Then, Cavic led every inch of the way, by half-a-body length at the turn.

At the final wall, Cavic seemed to win, his arms straight out, his last stroke over, reaching for the electronic timer. Meanwhile, Phelps "chopped off" his last normal stroke, abbreviated it so that he could lift himself even further above the water and make one last desperate mid-air lunge, sending his arms rocketing above water, as if determined to shatter every finger on the wall.

Then came the wait, the agony, as the jammed Water Cube, filled with tension to the brim, was ready to turn a far darker shade of blue. Thousands believed this Olympics had lost its moment for the ages, its athlete about whom we would tell tales of unsurpassed glory as long as we lived.

The cursed electronic timer, it's never wrong. Our eyes can be. It never has been. And surely it would confirm every fear.

Yet, it didn't. Phelps has the Omega endorsement deal locked up for life. The Olympic chronometer of choice told the tale.

On the scoreboard flashed the numbers that will be shown as long as they have Olympics, the numbers that will eclipse even the memory of Jason Lezak's winning leg in the 4x100 freestyle relay to win for America and Phelps by .08 of a second. That win was by the length of a hand. A hand, what's that? For a man to set a gold-medal record that stretches the limits of athletic endurance he should win at least one race because he didn't cut his fingernails that morning.

There it was: in Lane 5, Phelps: 50.58, Olympic record. In Lane 4, Cavic, 50:59.

By one-hundredth of a second, a distance that Cavic said was "maybe shaving [the tips of] your fingers," the American giant won his seventh gold medal of these Olympics to tie Mark Spitz's record, set in '72. No one has ever won more. But on Sunday, in a relay the United States is almost sure to win, Phelps should stand alone.

"When I chopped the last stroke, I thought I had lost the race," said Phelps, still grinning two hours after his win. "But it turned out I made the right decision -- a short fast stroke. If I had glided, it would have been way too long."

That's what FINA officials saw, too, when they studied replays slowed to one-ten-thousandth of a second. "There are no doubts. It was very clear that the Serbian swimmer touched second," said FINA's Ben Ekumbo. "One was stroking [Phelps] and the other was gliding [Cavic]."

At first, underwater instant replay seemed to show that Cavic, fully extended, hit the wall while Phelps's arms were still in the air.

"I've never heard of an error in the timing system," said Phelps. The Serbs filed a formal protest but, after being invited to watch films with officials, conceded defeat. Two timing systems, one cable and the other battery, both showed identical times.

"People will be saying for years, 'You won that race,' " said a generous and civil Cavic. "Of course, I watched the replay . . . Michael said, 'It's crazy.'

"I'm taking what I've got and I'm very happy. I look at it as a miracle. A year ago I was retired. I came here looking for a bronze medal and got silver."

Still, Cavic confessed: "This is the most difficult loss you can have, especially in the Olympics. . . . We all know electronics are imperfect. It's possible [I won]. I'm not about fighting it. . . . I didn't beat Michael Phelps. But perhaps I'm the only guy who had a chance to beat him."

Just so this race could have every possible melodrama, it was a grudge match, too. Just as the French relay team made comments that aroused the U.S. team before their relay win, Cavic got under Phelps's skin. Before the race, Phelps's coach read him Cavic's "good for swimming" quote. "I just said, 'Okay,' " said Phelps, drolly. "Our team uses things like that to fuel us. It definitely motivates me more."

Before the race, as the two faced each other, unmoving, "We couldn't see through each other's goggles. You saw your own reflection," said Cavic. "Maybe he thought, 'Hey, I look pretty good.' I know I saw myself in his goggles and I thought, 'I'm holding this [pressure] under control."

From the day these Games began, few doubted that Phelps could win all eight of these medals if the races were held several days apart and his body and mind had time to recover. The true Olympian task, one that has stretched the limits of witnesses' imaginations, just as it has taken Phelps to the edges of athletic endurance, is whether any human could do it all within nine days.

"There is still gas in the tank," said Phelps after his fifth gold. Then he added, "There better still be gas in the tank. I've got three more races." Human, not fish, after all?

That question -- the size of Phelps's mental and physical tank, and his ability to manage the flow of fuel and fire -- has been the issue hanging over this Olympics for a week. Now we know.

"This really shows that no matter what you set your imagination to, it's possible," said Phelps. "It shows you anything can happen. Dream as big as you can . . ."

Against all probabilities, beyond any sane prediction, Phelps's quest has surpassed expectation with this final margin of victory and given the Olympics its defining fabulous moment.

"Hopefully, on Sunday, something will happen," said FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu, "that will make [Phelps] an extraterrestrial or something."

For Phelps, species transmogrification isn't necessary. "I'm in sort of a dream world. Sometimes I have to pinch myself," he said. "I'm just happy I'm in the real world."