One high-speed collision in a warmup 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 Phelps and Cavic delivered Saturday night at the world championships. Just the way it did about 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 and known as Mike, 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 last move, the 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 briefly shook Cavic's hand moments after the race but otherwise did little else to acknowledge him. "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 Baltimore Ravens gear at home.
"It certainly helps, and their styles also help," Bowman said. "Fast starter and fast closer. It makes it really compelling and you heard the noise when they came out, for both of them. It was great."
And Cavic? He called it an incredible race and spoke about the pre-race intensity and buzz 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, the way he did in China. Shortly after that blast, a Serbian radio reporter launched into a loud question/statement directed at Phelps, and Cavic ended up translating her remarks, and he looked right at Phelps.
She apparently wondered why Phelps acted the way he did on Saturday, and not like that in the loss to Paul Biedermann. Phelps, who compared the race to a boxing showdown, 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 warmup, 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."
It certainly didn't hurt Campbell, who was the fastest qualifier for the women's 50 freestyle. Dara Torres, 42, grabbed the final spot for today's final by qualifying eighth.
"We had a bit of a head collision but nothing a couple of Panadol couldn't fix," Campbell said. "I just laughed it off and continued the warmup and preparing for the race."
About the only thing Phelps didn't do before the race was walk under a ladder. That mishap was long forgotten after one of the most satisfying swims of his career, especially after his tumultuous past year, in which he took off six months and pondered quitting the sport after a controversial photo of him holding a bong appeared in a British tabloid.
Phelps talked about watching the old videos when he was thinking about coming back, and the old feelings came rushing back. "Those are the good times," said Phelps, who has won two individual races and two relay golds. "I want to get back to that. And this meet brought me back to that."
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World records set Saturday at the World Swimming Championships in Rome:
Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe, 200 backstroke, 2:04.01.
China (Zhao Jing, Chen Huijia, Jiao Liuyang, Li Zhesi), 400 medley relay, 3:52.19.
Michael Phelps, U.S., 100 butterfly, 49.82.
Liam Tancock, Great Britain, 50 backstroke, 24.08.
Women 24 | Men: 15