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Phelps swims into history

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.