ROME—- One high-speed collision in a warm-up at a historic indoor pool built under the orders of Mussolini could have undercut another collision of ego and talent: the showdown between Michael Phelps and Milorad Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly.
Who knew that blurry vision, an aching left shoulder and busted swim goggles after colliding hard with an Australian female sprinter would set the stage for what could have been Phelps' finest swim performance?
The much-hyped showdown between the Rodgers Forge native and Cavic delivered on Saturday night at the world championships, just as it did almost a year ago at the Olympics in Beijing when Phelps won the 100 fly by one-hundredth of a second.
Phelps defeated Cavic in an electric final, winning in a world-record 49.82 seconds. Cavic, the blunt-speaking Serb who was born and raised in Orange County, Calif., also went under the world mark, in 49.95. That was one of four world records on Day 7, bringing the total to 39 at this meet.
The amazing performances by Phelps, the winner of 14 Olympic gold medals, are many. But his longtime coach Bob Bowman flipped through the massive mental Rolodex and stopped right at 49.82.
"This is the best by far," Bowman said.
Phelps' actions supported those words. After touching first, he hopped up on the lane line and waved his arms, as if exhorting an already-loud crowd at the Foro Italico complex pool. He screamed and spit out water and tugged at his LZR Racer swimsuit, having reclaimed the world record from Cavic, who lowered it Friday in the semifinals.
That suit tug was a way of saying "Wear It" to Cavic. Cavic, an Arena man, had offered to buy Phelps one of the soon-to-be-banned polyurethane bodysuits, which only pushed all the right buttons for Phelps.
"I don't think I have ever been that emotional and fired up after a race," said Phelps, who ignored Cavic and swam by him to leave the pool without visible acknowledgment. "You saw by my reaction how much I wanted that. ... I think you saw me after the race pull my suit out. It doesn't matter what suit you wear, it matters how you train."
Phelps went out faster than in Beijing, in 23.36 in the opening 50 here, and was fourth at the turn. And, this time, he didn't need a desperate lunge of improvisation at the wall, winning by 0.13 in Rome.
The stark contrast between Phelps and Cavic created a heavyweight-type air, giving swimming a buzz rarely felt in off-Olympic years. Cavic wisely played to the crowd, waving a banner of the local soccer outfit, AS Roma, when he was introduced. Phelps must have left his Ravens gear at home.
Cavic called it an incredible race and paid tribute to Phelps. "You can't match the feeling. ... Michael Phelps is Michael Phelps and he does what he does, and he did."
He showed a remarkable consistency, finishing second to Phelps again and then ripping the American media, again, the way he did in China. Shortly after that blast, a Serbian radio reporter launched into a loud question/statement directed at Phelps. Cavic ended up translating her remarks, and he looked right at Phelps.
She apparently wondered why Phelps acted the way he did Saturday, and not like that in the loss to Paul Biedermann. Phelps kept the news conference from getting even more inane with a funny quote.
"The first thing, I'm not going to splash water and have a big smile on my face and be happy after I just get destroyed," he said. "That's never going to be my reaction."
Before the ridiculous, there was the sublime. And way before that, the collision with Australian star Cate Campbell in Phelps' first warm-up, about an hour and a half before the race. Bowman had one word when he witnessed it: "No!"
Phelps said he hit the back of her head and had blurred vision in his left eye. Bowman was more worried about Phelps' sore left shoulder. But he saw a doctor and started feeling better as the race grew closer.
"We were all a little freaked out about it," Phelps said.
Said Bowman: "I think it got their adrenaline going."