Milorad Čavić (31 May, 1984) is a Serbian butterfly and freestyle swimmer and is among the fastest butterfly sprinters in the world at the 50m and 100m distances.
Born in Anaheim, California – to which his family emigrated from the former Yugslavia in 1983 – Čavić started making his mark as a schoolboy when he won a 100m butterfly national title, broke the national high school 50yd freestyle record, and was named National High School Swimmer of the Year in 2002. While still at school, he represented Yugoslavia at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney in 100m butterfly. After high school, he went to the University of California at Berkeley, where he was part of the CalBeras freestyle relay teams that set a number of NCAA and U.S. Open records.
Čavić leapt into international swimming focus in 2003 when he won the 100m butterfly gold at the European Short Course Championships in Dublin in a new world record of 50.02s, while also picking up a silver medal in 50m freestyle. The following year he represented Serbia and Montenegro at the Athens Olympics, making the 100m butterfly semi-finals, but failing to get beyond the heats in 50m and 100m freestyle. During his butterfly semi-final, he led until just after the turn, at which point his suit opened at the neck, allowing water to gush in and causing him to finish last.
At the 2005 World Championships in Montreal, he made the 50m and 100m butterfly semi-finals, and improved on this two years later at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, where he finished fifth and sixth respectively in these two events. In between, he won his first 100m butterfly European Short Course title at Helsinki in 2006, and successfully defended them in 2007 in Debrecen and 2008 in Rijeka, where he set a new European record of 49.19s.
But it was 2008 that truly put Čavić onto the world swimming map. First, at the European Championships in Eindhoven, we won the 50m butterfly, breaking the European record in both his semi-final and the final. During the award ceremony, however, he wore a T-shirt with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia”, and was subsequently banned from the remainder of the event.
Later in the year at the Beijing Games – competing for his third “different” country (Serbia) in the Olympics – Čavić came the closest to stopping Michael Phelps’s gold medal run by pushing him to the wire in the 100m butterfly. In fact, many believed that he had touched first, but failed to apply enough pressure to the timing registration device in the pool. The official Olympic timekeeper, Omega, formally acknowledged as such almost a year later, but the result was not reversed. Milorad also made the 100m freestyle semi-final, but withdrew to focus on his preparation for his main event.
The controversy catapulted Čavić into the spotlight, and focused the swimming world’s attention on their next major meeting, at the 2009 World Championships in Rome. With controversy swirling around the use of hi-tech suits, Phelps produced a formidable final 10m burst to deny him the 100m butterfly world title. Čavić did, however, break the world record in the semi-final, only to be eclipsed by Phelps in the final, despite also bettering the mark he had set the day before. His time of 49.95s set a new European record, and his and Phelps’s times in that final are still the only two sub-50s 100m fly swims of all time.
Five days earlier, and somewhat under the radar compared to the hype of the 100m fly, Čavić won the 50m butterfly world title in a new championship record time of 22.67s.
2010 proved to be a hiatus year for Milorad, who took time off to have an operation to address a long-standing lower back problem. He was back in the competitive pool for the first time in February, 2011, with his near-term sights set on the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, and his long-term goal to return to his best in time for the 2012 London Olympics.
He has been named Sportsman of the Year by the Olympic Committee of Serbia three times – in 2003, 2008, and 2009 – as well as 2008’s Best Athlete of Serbia by the country’s daily sports newspaper, Sport.
Milorad Čavić will forever be known as the man who almost burst Michael Phelps’ bubble. Many say that he did, including the Olympic Games’ official timekeeper (sometime after the competition), but he wasn’t awarded the victory. In the eye of this passionate storm, Čavić was a model for all those looking on: “People, this is the greatest moment of my life. If you ask me, it should be accepted and we should move on. I’ve accepted defeat, and there’s nothing wrong with losing to the greatest swimmer there has ever been".
That he was able to accept such a questionable result on the world’s biggest sporting stage with such good grace is an indication of the essence of Milorad Čavić – to appreciate what he has, not what he doesn’t have. An Olympic medal, after all – Serbia’s first – is something to be proud of. Milorad’s philosophy shows in his actions outside the pool, too, such as with Veruj u Sebe (Believe in Yourself), a campaign he started in 2009 with Serbian national volleyball player Ivana Djerisilo to help the orphans of the region’s conflicts. The initiative focuses on spending time with children who so desperately need love and guidance, hoping to inspire them with stories from his life of swimming, which has taught him discipline, failure, success, and a sense of responsibility.
Having an apartment in Belgrade – courtesy of the city – helps Milorad not only to meet the children, it also helps to give him a fixed place to go, something his nomadic life hasn’t offered in a while. Having a base in Serbia also takes him closer to his roots. He may have been born and brought up in California, and he may think and behave like an American, but his heart is Serbian. Being able to eat his national food, hear and dance to its music, and mix with his fellow Serbians is a welcome opportunity for someone interested in his origins.
The passion for his homeland shone through in 2008 at the European Championships in Eindhoven, when he stepped on to the 50m butterfly podium with a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia.” He sees his subsequent banishment from the rest of the competition as legitimate, but doesn’t regret his actions (although he realizes it wasn’t smart and he’d think twice about doing it again). His motivation behind the action came from the heart, and a desire to see more unity in his homeland than continuing fragmentation.
This dual nationality and identity with both Serbia and the USA might well have been the seed to his choice of studying political economics at university, as well as history, since they both keep him current and remind him of the past. He’s far more than a sportsman that needed to study something to justify his scholarship, and his eloquence and sharp insight and opinions give a glimpse of the active and curious mind behind his swarthy exterior. He’s even considered pursuing a masters in economics at Bocconi University in Milan (one of his favourite cities) before getting into some kind of business related to Eastern Europe.
But only when his swimming career is over. In the meantime he trains with Andrea Di Nino at the ADN Swim Project in Caserta near Naples, where he’s been since 2008, and today trains with butterfly rivals Jason Dunford and Evgeny Korotyshkin. Being a lover of food – the best part of his day is mealtime – he loves Italy, but wishes that more people spoke a second language. It has limited his ability to indulge in one of his preferred after-hours pastimes – talking about things other than swimming, such as politics, society, and what’s happening in the world.
Milorad is pleased to have put the hi-tech suit era behind him, and be able to concentrate on simply swimming instead of having to fend off controversies surrounding who’s wearing what suit. In his eyes swimming lost credibility as a sport during that period. He’s also a proponent of the blood passport for swimmers – in which regular three-monthly samples are taken and made public – in order not only to take a step toward totally eradicating doping in the sport, but also to eliminate the practice of doubting the methods of those who have achieved incredible results legitimately.
That he is even taking part in these initiatives and competing at the highest level is a result of pure will and focus. Several few years ago it was touch and go whether Milorad would even continue swimming due to a debilitating lower back problem that frequently left him in agony. His achievements in 2008 and beyond are testament to his resolve, but it could only last so long, and so finally in 2010 he took care of it with an operation. It’ll be a tough road back to the giddy heights of 2008, but, as he says, what is a wall for others, is a door for him.