LONDON – Michael Phelps qualified for his first final of these Olympics … just barely.
The superstar of the Beijing Games came stunningly close to missing the medal round of the 400 IM, snagging the eighth and final spot in the race by out-touching Laszlo Cseh by .07 seconds – 4:13.33 to 4:13.40. His time was almost six seconds slower than both his qualifying time in this year’s Omaha trials and his preliminary time in Beijing four years ago. The United States’ other gold medal favorite, Ryan Lochte, finished with the third-best preliminary time, coasting in at 4:12.35 and drawing the No. 3 lane in the final. Phelps will swim in lane eight. Japan’s 17-year-old Kosuke Hagino swam a surprisingly fast heat, going 4:10.01 and locking up the coveted fourth lane in the final.
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Phelps seemed surprised at his time, stopping in the mixed zone and staring over reporters at one point to watch Lochte’s final, perhaps aware that he was close to being eliminated.
"I don’t know, that one didn’t feel too good," Phelps said. "I just wanted to try and get some good underwaters, try to get some good turns and carry my speed in and out of the walls. A final spot is a final spot.
"You can’t win the gold medal from the morning."
After his heat, Phelps believed he would fall somewhere between “fourth to sixth” in the final, but Lochte’s heat was particularly strong, with five swimmers qualifying for the finals and nearly eliminating Phelps. Phelps seemed to be pacing himself off Cseh, who was the silver medalist behind Phelps in the event in Beijing.
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Swimming side-by-side, Phelps carried much of his heat with Cseh, then lost his lead to the Hungarian on the breast stroke and still trailed going into the final 50 meters. That’s when Phelps reclaimed his lead down the stretch in the freestyle, out-touching Cseh in what would be the moment that allowed him to secure a spot in the medal round. Cseh finished ninth and out of the final.
Lochte, who took bronze in Beijing, didn’t appear to swim his best race, either. He coasted in his final two meters and was out-touched by South Africa’s Chad le Clos. But his nonchalant effort was overshadowed by Phelps’ struggles, which cast somewhat of a pall on the "duel-in-the-pool" hype that surrounded the pair going into this race.
"It’s a tough field," Lochte said of Phelps’ securing the final spot. "But he’s in. You can’t count him out, even though he just squeaked in in eighth. We’re going to do everything we can to go 1-2 tonight.
"[My race] didn’t feel so good, but that was my first race. My first race is always the worst. I’m glad I got the cobwebs out. What I had to do was get a lane for tonight, so I’m pretty happy."
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