BEIJING -- He was finished. He was cooked. Everyone knew it, and everyone knew it early.
Midway through Michael Phelps' furious flap toward history this morning, he was sinking.
"He's done!" shouted a man standing next to me on the railing overlooking the steamy, churning Water Cube pool.
"It's over!" shouted another man above the roar from the stunned crowd.
Seventh place. No more chase.
No eight gold medals.
Mark Spitz was safe. Michael Phelps was mortal.
Then, once again, he wasn't.
Then, like some mythical creature from some mystical lagoon, he rose from the deep.
When America remembers how a dorky Baltimore kid once devoured an Olympics, this is what they will remember.
His giant pumping arms appeared first, then his goggled head, then his twisting legs, stretching, reaching, pleading.
Suddenly, with about three strokes left in the 100-meter butterfly, there he was.
"I saw a shadow on the side of my goggles," said leader Milorad Cavic.
From a shadow to a star. From seventh place to seventh heaven.
Splash, boom, justlikethat, Phelps lunged to the wall one-hundredth of a second ahead of Cavic to win his history-tying seventh gold medal of these games.
One-hundredth of a second.
That's a fingernail.
That's a callus.
That's a joke.
"It's the smallest margin of victory in our sport," Phelps said later. "It was pretty cool."
One-hundredth of a second.
"That could be anything," Cavic said. "That could be shaving your fingers."
One-hundredth of a second.
It was closer than that. Only when Phelps tore off his goggles and stared at the scoreboard did he realize he had finished first. He screamed and splashed in excitement while the crowd gasped in disbelief.
"I had to take my goggles off to make sure there was a '1' next to my name," Phelps said. "That's when I let out my roar."
From the Serbians, there was an understandable roar for different reasons.
Watching poolside, it appeared Cavic had won. Watching the instant replay on the giant scoreboard, it also appeared Cavic won.
Upon seeing the replay, the crowd mumbled and groaned while Serbian officials immediately protested.
The meet's timekeeper, Omega, is a Phelps sponsor. The international swimming federation's directors have been clearly Phelps' fans.
The first question asked of Cavic by a Serbian writer was, "How does it feel being the only man to beat Michael Phelps?"
Could it have been possible that even one of the most sophisticated timing systems in the world was wrong?
"Technology is imperfect," Cavic said. "It's possible. Everything is possible."
Cavic thinks he won. He didn't exactly say it, but you could tell.
"If we got to do this again, I'd win it," he said.
But shortly after the race, meet officials invited Serbian officials to view a super-slow-motion replay.
In it, according to meet referee Ben Ekumbo, the results were clear, and the protest was withdrawn.
"The Serbian swimmer finished second," he announced. "It was an issue of stroking. One was stroking, the other was gliding."
Officials also noted that even if it was determined that Phelps had not touched first, he would have still shared the gold medal, keeping his historic chase alive.
Said Phelps: "It was almost too close to see."
Said Cavic: "It's something you really can't show. It's just that fast."
But yes, of course, it was Phelps who was the one stroking, taking a final chop where Cavic did not.
"I had a long finish, he had a short finish," admitted Cavic, who is from Orange County.
Phelps hasn't glided through anything this week in tying Spitz's Olympic record with one race remaining Sunday.
That race, the 400 medley relay, is one the American men have never lost in a non-boycotted Olympics.
The only question remaining is, does Michael Phelps have enough left to pull his weight?
He seemed exhausted even before today's race, trudging to the blocks, shaking his arms more than normal, searching for his strength.
Afterward, when his excitement died, he winced in pain, and his tentative steps revealed his aches.
"I'm at a loss for words right now," Phelps said immediately afterward, wet and weary. "I don't know what to say."
He paused, and, as usual, thought of something.
"When everyone says you can't do something, it just shows you that anything is possible," he said.
Especially Sunday when, it says here, the U.S. men will win even if they have to drag Michael Phelps behind them on a rope.
After he's carried U.S. swimming for a week, here's guessing his three relay teammates will carry him.
And maybe when Phelps realizes he received a $1-million bonus from Speedo for tying Spitz, well, that should help ease his pain.
"If you dream as big as you can dream, anything can happen," Phelps said.
In a race for the ages.
In the blink of an eye.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Men's 50 Freestyle
*--* Medal winners G: Cesar Cielo Filho (Brazil) Time: 21.30 S: Amaury Leveaux (France) Time: 21.45 B: Alain Bernard (France) Time: 21.49 *--*
Men's 100 Butterfly
*--* Medal winners G: Michael Phelps (United States) Time: 50.58 S: Milorad Cavic (Serbia) Time: 50:59 B: Andrew Lauterstein (Australia) Time: 51.12 *--*
Women's 200 Backstroke
*--* Medal winners G: Kirsty Coventry (Zimbabwe) Time: 2:05.24 S: Margaret Hoelzer (United States) Time: 2:06.09 B: Reiko Nakamura (Japan) Time: 2:07.13 *--*
Women's 800 Freestyle
*--* Medal winners G: Rebecca Adlington (Britain) Time: 8:14.10 S: Alessia Filippi (Italy) Time: 8:20.23 B: Lotte Friis (Denmark) Time: 8:23.03 *--*