Michael Phelps of the US swam into history with a magnificent finish today, tying Mark Spitz with his seventh Olympic gold medal by the narrowest of margins in the 100-metre butterfly.
He got his hands on the wall a hundredth of a second ahead of Milorad Cavic of Serbia — a finish so close the Serbs filed a protest and swimming's governing body had to review the tape down to the 10-thousandth of a second.
"I had no idea," Phelps said. "I was starting to hurt a little bit with probably the last 10 meters. That was my last individual race, so I was just trying to finish as strong as I could."
Phelps' time was 50.58 seconds, the only time in these Olympics that he won an event without breaking the world record.
The 23-year-old has now pulled even with the greatest of Olympic records, matching Spitz's performance in the 1972 Munich Games.
"One word: epic," Spitz told The Associated Press from Detroit. "It goes to show you that not only is this guy the greatest swimmer of all time and the greatest Olympian of all time, he's maybe the greatest athlete of all time. He's the greatest racer who ever walked the planet."
Call it the Great Haul of China — and it's not done yet.
Phelps will return on Sunday to swim in his final event of these games, taking the butterfly leg of the 4x100 medley relay. The Americans will be heavily favored to give him his eighth gold, leaving Spitz behind.
Phelps slapped his hands on the water and let out a scream after the astonishing finish. The crowd at the Water Cube gasped — it looked as though Cavic had won — then roared when the "1" popped up beside the American's name.
Cavic's time was 50.59.
The Serb delegation filed a protest, but conceded that Phelps won after reviewing the tape provided by FINA, swimming's governing body. USA Swimming spokeswoman Jamie Olson said the tape was slowed to one frame every 10-thousandth of a second to make sure Phelps actually touched first.
It was impossible to tell on regular-speed replays.
"We filed the protest but it is already over," said Branislav Jevtic, Serbia's chief of mission for all sports. "They examined the video and I think the case is closed. The video says (Phelps) finished first.
"In my opinion, it's not right, but we must follow the rules. Everybody saw what happened."
FINA referee Ben Ekumbo of Kenya said there was no doubt who won after a review of the super-slow replay.
"It was very clear that the Serbian swimmer touched second after Michael Phelps," he said. "One was stroking and one was gliding."
Cavic wasn't sure he actually lost, but said he would accept the result.
"I'm stoked with what happened," Cavic said. "I don't want to fight this. People will be bringing this up for years and saying you won that race. If we got to do this again, I would win it."
Cavic watched the replay himself.
"It's kind of hard to see," he said. "I know I had a long finish and Michael Phelps had a short finish."
A notoriously slow starter — Phelps was seventh out of eight at the turn — he really turned it on with the return lap, his long arms windmilling through the water as he closed the gap on Cavic and fellow American Ian Crocker, the world record-holder.
As they approached the finish, with Phelps' head in line with Cavic's shoulder, the Serb took his final big stroke and glided underwater toward the gold. Phelps, his timing a bit off but fully aware of where he was, did another mini-stroke, propelling his upper body out of the water, swooping his arms in a huge circular motion and slamming the wall with his hands on the follow-through.
"I actually thought when I did take that half-stroke, I thought I lost the race there, but I guess that was the difference in the race," Phelps said.
It was reminiscent of the 100 fly finish at Athens four years ago, where Crocker appeared to have the race won but Phelps got him at the wall by 0.04.
"My last two Olympics I've been able to nail my finishes, and it's been by four one-hundredths and one one-hundredths," he said. "I'm happy and kind of at a loss for words."
As if Phelps needed any extra motivation, his coach, Bob Bowman, took note of Cavic's reported comments a day earlier that it would be best for the sport if the American lost.
On their way to breakfast, Bowman brought it up.
"I wasn't going to at first, then I was saying to myself, 'This race is going to be very tight and I'm going to use everything I got,' so I put it out there," Bowman said. "Maybe it was worth a hundredth."
"It fires me up more than anything," Phelps said. "I always welcome comments. It definitely motivates me even more."
He also collected a $1 million bonus that Speedo, one of his sponsors, first offered four years ago if he could tie or break Spitz's record. Phelps failed to cash in at the Athens Games, where he won six golds and two bronzes, but he got it on his second try.
What's left? Already the athlete with the most Olympic golds ever — 13 and most likely a 14th before he leaves Beijing — Phelps will have another thing to shoot for at the 2012 London Games. Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina captured a record 18 medals in her career: nine golds, five silvers and four bronzes.
Phelps set world records in his first six events, some of them by large margins. He settled for a personal best in the 100 fly. All seven of Spitz's wins in Munich were with world records.
Andrew Lauterstein of Australia won the bronze medal in 51.12. Crocker was again denied the first individual gold of his career; he didn't even win a medal, finishing fourth by a hundredth of a second in 51.13.
"It was a tight one," Crocker said. "I saw my short differential between getting a medal or not, but then I realized Michael's was pretty close, too. I'm really glad that he came out on top."
While the medley relay figures to be nothing more than a coronation, Phelps isn't ready to talk about No. 8.
"It's not over yet," he said. "I really think the Australian team looks great for the relay. It's going to be a race."