BEIJING - They stood beside their starting blocks, as close to a staredown as you'll ever see at the pool.
Michael Phelps in lane five, his right foot already on the block, goggles and cap pulled down tight. Milorad Cavic in lane four, a mirror image looking Phelps' way.
They stepped up, turned toward the water and headed off, a minute in time that will forever define their lives.
The guy pursuing Olympic greatness.
The guy who almost ruined it.
On a Saturday morning half a world away from his native Baltimore, Phelps swam into history during a riveting 100-meter butterfly that wasn't decided until the very last second - no, make that the very last hundredth of a second, the time it takes lightning to strike the ground.
To the naked eye, Phelps surely lost. But a high-tech timing system and video slowed to 10-thousandth of a second proved otherwise. As a result, it was Phelps - not the Serbian - who climbed yet again to the top step of the medal stand, bending over to receive his seventh gold medal of the Beijing Games, the one that tied him with Mark Spitz.
"One hundredth is the smallest margin of victory in our sport," Phelps said. "I guess it's pretty cool."
Call it the Great Haul of China - and it's not done yet. Phelps has one more race on Sunday, which likely will complete his ascension as the greatest Olympian ever.
Spitz already ceded the title.
"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," said the star of the 1972 Munich Games. "He's the greatest racer who ever walked the planet."
The great ones have a knack for pulling off the impossible just when all seems lost. Michael Jordan never missed with the clock running down. Joe Montana always completed the fourth-down pass. Tiger Woods makes every crucial putt look like a tap-in.
Add Phelps to the list.
"There's nothing wrong with losing to the greatest swimmer there has ever been," Cavic blogged on his Web site.
Phelps will wrap up a magical nine days with what should be little more than a coronation, something akin to that ceremonial final ride at the Tour de France. Only a monumental blunder - a false start, someone diving in too soon on an exchange - would deny Phelps his eighth gold.
The Americans have never lost the 400 medley relay at the Olympics, and none of his teammates wants to be known as the guy who messes up No. 8.
"Dream as big as you can dream and anything is possible," Phelps said. "I am sort of in a dream world. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure it is real."
The finish in the 100 fly was, well, unreal, so close the Serbian delegation filed a protest. Phelps actually thought he lost - until he saw the "1" beside his name on the scoreboard. He slapped the water and yelled with delight. Then he shook hands with Cavic over the lane rope.
"When I did chop the last stroke, I thought that had cost me the race," Phelps said. "But it was actually the opposite. If I had glided, I would have been way too long. I took short, faster strokes to try to get my hand on the wall. I ended up making the right decision."
Phelps' time was 50.58 seconds, the only event in these Olympics that he won without breaking the world record.
Still, winning allowed the 23-year-old to tie the greatest of Olympic records.
"One word: epic," Spitz told The Associated Press from Detroit. "I'm so proud of what he's been able to do. I did what I did and it was in my day in those set of circumstances. For 36 years it stood as a benchmark. I'm just pleased that somebody was inspired by what I had done."
A notoriously slow starter - Phelps was seventh out of eight at the turn - he really turned it on in the return lap, his long arms gobbling up huge chunks of 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 knew Michael is a back-half swimmer and that he would be chasing me down at the end," Cavic said. "I saw his shadow on the side of my goggle and I knew he was coming. I liked to be chased. The last eight meters I just put my head down and I did not breathe."
Phelps watched the replay on the video board, then saw it again in the massage area.
"I saw it slow down frame by frame," he said. "It's almost too close to see."
It was reminiscent of the 100 fly finish in Athens four years ago, when Ian Crocker appeared to have the race won but Phelps got him at the wall by four hundredths of a second.
Lost in the frenzied finish of this race: Crocker, the world record-holder and considered Phelps' main challenger, lost out on the bronze to Australia's Andrew Lauterstein by the same margin - a hundredth of a second - that decided gold and silver.
"I thought four one-hundredths was close and I was shocked then," Phelps said. "I'm even more shocked now."
Makes that 400 free relay look like a blowout. Remember that one? Jason Lezak chased down France's Alain Bernard on the anchor leg to win by eight-hundredths of a second, Phelps' only other close call in Beijing.
The Serbian delegation filed a protest over the fly, but conceded that Phelps won after reviewing a frame-by-frame tape provided by FINA, swimming's governing body.
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."
What's left? Already the winningest Olympian ever with 13 golds 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.
"My big goal is to change the sport of swimming," Phelps said. "I am sure Bob (Bowman, his coach) and I can think of some more goals in the next four years."
Phelps 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. He failed to cash in at the Athens Games, where he won six golds and two bronzes, but he got it on his second try.
Cavic still isn't sure how he lost, but he knows he'll forever be linked with one of the most memorable races in Olympic history.
Not a bad consolation prize to go along with that silver medal.
"People will be bringing this up for years and saying, 'You won that race,'" he said. "If we got to do this again, I would win it."
But not here. Not at the Phelps Olympics.