BEIJING - You couldn't believe your eyes.

Really.

Milorad Cavic, of Serbia, had swum faster than Phelps twice here.

It looked as if he'd done it again.

In person and on television replays, it appeared that Cavic glided to the wall just ahead of Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly final, denying Phelps a record-tying seventh gold medal.

Holding its collective breath, the crowd at the Water Cube awaited the news, expecting, perhaps, disappointment, hoping, perhaps, for a reprieve. So did the swimmers.

Then, explosion. And elation.

The Omega scoreboard - official Olympic timekeeper, official sponsor of Phelps - had Phelps finishing in 50.58, one-hundredth of a second faster than Cavic.

"I had to take my goggles off to see the '1' next to my name," Phelps said.

Phelps swam through the wall. Cavic glided to touch. Therein was the difference.

"When I took that extra half-stroke, I thought I'd lost the race," Phelps said.

So did the Cavic, and his Serbian contingent. They lodged a formal, written protest. FINA officials said they viewed replays to the one-ten-thousandth of a second.

"It was very clear that the Serbian swimmer finished second," Nigerian referee Ben Ekumbo said. "One was stroking. The other was gliding."

Ekumbo added that FINA broke with protocol and invited Serbian officials to review the decisive tape and, afterward, the Serbs chose to not appeal.

Cavic graciously, cleverly and wonderfully demurred. He came out of retirement a year ago hoping to secure a bronze at best.

He got silver, and a personal record, and the fame of being the guy who almost beat Michael Phelps - this, from a guy who, before this, hadn't finished better than sixth at a world competition.

"I'm sure people will be bringing this up for years, saying, 'You won that race,' " the Berkeley-educated 24-year-old said. "It was a real honor to race Michael Phelps and being in that situation, where all eyes were on me."

And Phelps, of course.

The seventh medal tied Mark Spitz' 1972 mark, won Phelps a $1 million bonus from sponsor Visa Inc. Phelps' reported estimated annual income is more than $6 million. Just 23, with at least one more Games in his future, that annual earning power could explode after his ascension to legendary status in China.

"I'm not in it for the money," Phelps said, minutes after acknowledging that one of his goals was to become a professional athlete.

Yesterday's controversial result set him up to break Spitz' record with an eighth gold in the 4 x 100-meter medley relay tonight. It also extended Phelps' record for career Olympic golds to 13, a mark that Spitz shared with three others.

Spitz predicted Phelps would win at least seven, though former Australian rival Ian Thorpe repeatedly has questioned Phelps' chances.

"The biggest thing," Phelps said, "is when someone says you can't do something - it shows you anything is possible."

Was it, really? Did the system malfunction?

"Technology is imperfect. It's possible. Maybe the hand is quicker than the eye," Cavic said. "I think if we got to do this again, I would win." *