Photo by Adam Pretty

I Beat Michael Phelps by a Fingertip but Only Got a Silver Medal

I still returned home to Serbia a conquering hero

The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were a veritable coronation for Michael Phelps. The American swimmer seemed destined to win gold medals across all eight of the men’s swimming individual and team events. His eight-medal sweep, however, was nearly foiled by Milorad “Michael” Cavic of Serbia (by way of Anaheim). Cavic “lost” to Phelps — the most decorated Olympian in the history of the games — by a hundredth of a second in the 100-meter butterfly that year, despite still photos showing Cavic touching the wall first. Though he had to settle for second place, Cavic returned to Serbia a national hero. A silver medalist rarely achieves that level of fame, but when you’re representing a lesser-known Eastern Bloc country and you nearly best the greatest Olympian this side of Hercules, it’s warranted.

The way Eastern European people teach their kids to swim, especially in Serbia, is to take their untrained children and throw them into the pool. They don’t let you drown, but they do let you fight.

That’s how I was first introduced to the water, at least. I started with more formal training at the age of 9. My best friend at the time was a swimmer, so I started swimming so that we could spend more time together. Right away, I was setting age-group records in Southern California. Although I competed for Serbia at the Olympics, I was born in Orange County. Serbian culture, however, was still a big part of my life. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Serbia, and they made it a point to keep the language inside our house and to celebrate Serbian traditions.

When I turned 15, I started swimming at some summer meets in Serbia, and officials there proposed I swim for what was then still known as the Yugoslav National Team. There had been talk about me joining the U.S. National Team, but I decided to stick with Serbia. A thousand people have swum for the U.S. over the years. They’ve done great things, but they’ve never changed the sport. If I swam for a small country like Yugoslavia, I could put it on the map for swimming. And I did. I took swimming in Serbia from a third-tier sport — on the same level as darts — to a first-tier sport, with 10 times the amount of financial resources to promote it.

Of course, I also loved — and wanted to honor — my Serbian heritage. At the finals of the 2008 European Championships, I wore a shirt with “Kosovo is Serbia” written on the front of it. Kosovo is one of the most important regions in Serbian history. The battle of Kosovo in 1389 is a strong part of our national identity. Our first and most important church also is in Kosovo. So when this region was taken away from Serbia in 2008, the heart of our country was torn out.

Wearing that shirt, though, came with serious consequences. European Championship officials told me I was going to be excluded from the rest of the competition for having worn a piece of clothing with a political slogan on it. I also had to leave the Netherlands, where the championships were being held, because they said I was inviting the opportunity for extremists to come to the pool.

Back in Serbia, though, my shirt changed everything. From that point on, I was no longer just an athlete — I was a national hero.

My first event at the 2008 Olympics was the 100-meter freestyle. I posted the fifth-fastest time in qualifications, but I scratched the event because I knew I wasn’t in a position to medal. Instead, I looked at it as an opportunity to feel the Olympic pool with a capacity crowd and to save my energy for the 100-meter butterfly.

After I set a new Olympic record during the semifinals of the 100-meter butterfly, a lot of media people started asking me what I thought was gonna happen during the finals when I went up against Michael Phelps. I told them there was a realistic chance I would beat him and that I wanted to be the guy to slay that dragon. The media ate it up; it gave them something juicy to write about and to talk about.

I believed it, too. Before you go out to the pool, you sit in a ready room with all of the other swimmers. In the moments prior to the 100-meter butterfly final, there was a lot of tension inside that room. You could hear it in the breathing and see bodies shaking. These are the moments I believe races are won and lost. They say that 85 percent of athletes go to the Olympic Games physically fit, but of those 85 percent, only 17 percent come mentally prepared. Athletes might act all big, strong and confident before a competition, but if you look in their eyes, you’ll often see scared children. And at that moment, I believed that Michael Phelps believed the 100-meter butterfly was the only race he wasn’t sure about.

I could only feel it though, not see it. Because one of the things Phelps does — no matter how hot it is outside — is wear a parka with a hood so big that it covers his eyes. And underneath his hood, he’s got his headphones on. He essentially hides himself. One of the things I learned from the guys who’d been around for a while is that in the ready room you do not shake, you do not breathe hard, you do not show weakness. Other people will feed off this, and you will burn off your own energy.

Along those same lines, one of my favorite quotes is, “When a devil smiles at a man, all that a man can do is smile back.” The way I interpret this is the devil is unbeatable. He’s never lost. And for you to ever have a chance at defeating him, you can never give him the opportunity to strike at you. You need to keep him on the defense the whole time. Because if you give him even a single opportunity, it will be game over. That’s at least the mentality I took into the race — sitting before me was the greatest swimmer of all time, a guy who hadn’t lost a race since he was 15, but I had a legitimate shot to beat him if I didn’t let him get into my head.

So I raced my race. As expected, I had the lead after the first 50 meters. Phelps and I were different kinds of swimmers. I had higher top speed but less endurance, while he was slower but had better stamina. Which meant that I knew the final 50 meters of the race would be spent keeping Phelps from running me down.

As I went into the wall, I was so tired that my legs quit on me. Next, my arms went. The lactic acid was killing me. Then my head started pounding because of a lack of oxygen to the brain. I also knew it was going to be a messy ending. I counted my strokes and thought, Crap, it’s either gonna be a very short finish, or a long one. I didn’t know if I’d won until I turned around and looked at my name on the board and saw No. 2 next to it. I looked for No. 1, and there was Phelps’s name. He’d won by a hundredth of a second. I was actually stoked — you can look at the photos. In my third Olympic Games, I’d finally won a medal.

After the medal ceremony, there was a press conference. That’s when things started getting nuts; I’d never seen so much press in my life. They were like, “On TV, it appeared you touched the wall first.” I just said, “If I did touch the wall first, I’m gonna push forward and explore my options for a protest of the race. But don’t make me feel like a victim. This is the greatest moment of my life, and you’re telling me that I should feel bad when I just achieved something I’d dreamt about since I was a little kid.”

I was becoming more and more confused, though. When I left the press conference, every swimmer on that pool deck — and even a lot of the Americans — were telling me, “We don’t know what happened, but we’re pretty sure you touched the wall first.”

Seventy-two hours after the race, Omega, the timing system that governs the Olympics, came up with a physical explanation of what had occurred: I had touched the wall first, but Phelps had activated the wall first. Throughout the history of swimming it was always understood that the swimmer who touches the wall first is the winner. But for the first time in our sport’s history, that was proven false. The swimmer who activates the touchpad on the wall with seven and a half pounds of pressure first is the winner. In the end, that was the difference — I simply didn’t touch the wall with enough force to set off the touchpad before Phelps did.

Back in Serbia, however, everyone was ecstatic. As the first person to medal in the Olympics since Serbia had become a sovereign nation, I received a hero’s welcome in front of the Belgrade city hall. It was insane; 30,000 people showed up just to see me. I had a celebrity status similar to a professional athlete in the U.S.: I couldn’t go places without stopping to sign 200 autographs; I had my own postage stamp. It was as if I had won the gold medal. In fact, outside of the United States, most people treat me as the winner of that race.

Of course, marketability is as good or as large as your market. So yes, I became an incredibly marketable swimmer and made some money. But swimming isn’t a very marketable sport. And Serbia is a smaller market than Italy, France or Russia. So was I able to acquire as many sponsors as I could have from one small country? Yes. Did I make as much money as I would have had I been an American swimmer? No.

Either way, I kept going — even after back surgery in 2010 to fix some herniated discs that had bothered me for years. Three months before the 2012 Olympics in London, I won a gold medal at the European Championships, the first time in swimming history anyone had returned and won a medal at that level after back surgery. I got bombarded with emails from athletes all over the world telling me, “You gave me inspiration to come back after my horrendous injury.”

With that in mind, I decided I wanted to be the first guy to win a medal at the Olympics after having back surgery. It didn’t have to be a gold; it just had to be a medal. The night before the Olympic final in London I prayed for only the third time in my life. I said, “God, medal or no medal tomorrow, please just let me walk away from the sport in peace.”

I finished fourth.

I got out of the pool, and normally my body would be on fire from all the lactic acid, but I felt nothing. Not happiness, not sadness. For weeks afterward, I was just numb. I spoke to a psychologist about it. He was like, “Let’s go back to that prayer. Did you not ask for peace and the strength to walk away from the sport?”

I did, but one of the most terrifying things for most retired athletes is astronaut syndrome: What do you do after you’ve been to the moon and know that you’ll never return? Most athletes in the U.S. are unemployable because instead of getting work experience in their 20s they were training for competition. And instead of making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year they have to be okay with the possibility of only making $40,000.

For me, though, the point isn’t about finding a job. It’s about finding a new identity and something else to be passionate about besides swimming. How do you identify if not as an athlete? What can you possibly do in this world that can give you as much meaning as your sport did? To this day, that’s something I’m still at war with myself about. I can get a job. It’s getting a job that I actually want to do that’s the issue.

I feel that I was put on earth to be a swimmer and to do what I did — to inspire and move the limits of what’s humanly possible. Because I did, especially in Serbia. That gives me a great sense of pride when I reflect on my career. I have to admit, though: I’m prouder of what happened after Beijing than the 100-meter butterfly against Phelps or the silver medal that came with it. I fear that I would’ve retired after the 2008 Games had I gone home with the gold, because my dream would have come to an end. In the following years, I grew as both an athlete and a man. So I’m not sure I’d be the person I am today if I had called it a career after that race.

—As told to Adam Elder