Michael Phelps swims during the men's 400m individual medley heats at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre.
Michael Phelps swims during the men's 400m individual medley heats at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre. (Tim Wimborne, Reuters)

Michael Phelps barely slipped into Saturday night's final for the 400-meter individual medley, coming in eighth in the morning preliminary heats that launched the first full day of Olympic competition -- and his own fourth and final Games.

"The only thing that matters is to get a spot" in the evening finals, Phelps said of the swim that will put him in a far outside lane, rather than the center to which he has become accustomed.


Ryan Lochte came in third, with his much vaunted rivalry with Phelps taking a backseat at least in the morning preliminaries, to swimmers of other countries:Japan'sKosuke Hagine andSouth Africa'sChad leClose came in first and second. The other surprise was the shutout of Laszlo Cseh, the 2008 silver medalist in the event to Phelps' gold, who failed to  advance to the finals. The Hungarian swimmer led Phelps during the breaststroke legs of their heat, with the Baltimorean pulling ahead in the final 50 meters of freestyle.

Lochte said his swim "didn't feel so good. My first race is always my worst swim. But I got the cobwebs out. It's hard. It's a tough field." As for his rival, Lochte said, "you can't count him out."

For Phelps, the grueling event that is considered swimming's decathlon is his first chance to top off an already golden Olympic legacy. Should he win it from his outside lane, he would become the first male swimmer to gold-medal in the same event in three Olympics. And, any hardware regardless of color would put him one away from tying the record of Larisa Latynina, a Soviet-era gymnast who has 18 total medals.

Rivaling the cheers that greeted Phelps, Lochte and other star swimmers, Queen Elizabeth drew wild  applause and flag-waving when she popped by the Aquatic Centre for a look-see. The monarch, who came off as quite the good sport for her participation in Friday night's opening ceremony -- she filmed a skit with the current James Bond, actor Daniel Craig that was shown on the screens at Olympic Stadium.

If Phelps got off to a slow start, other American swimmers provided the speed: Dana Vollmer set a new Olympic record swimming her 100-meter breaststroke heat in 56.25 seconds. Elizabeth Beisel put in the fastest time of the year, beating her own record set at the trials in Omaha, in the women's 400 IM preliminaries.

Phelps' training pal at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Allison Schmitt, anchored the women's team in the morning heat for the 400 freestyle relay. They came in second to Australia's team. Coaches will determine who swims Saturday night's finals, but in the morning, Lia Neal and Amanda Weir led off, both placing third in their legs, with veteran Natalie Coughlin putting the team in first, a lead that Schmitt kept. But the Australians swam faster by .19 of a second in their heat to enter the finals in first.

Phelps swam his 400 IM in 4 minutes, 13.33 seconds, well off his 4:03.84 world record, set in the Beijing Games, and winning him the first of what would be eight gold medals.

While Phelps is the world record holder for the event, having first broken it in 2002 and kept it ever since, he was beaten by Lochte the last time they faced off in it, in the Olympic qualifying trials just over a month ago.

Lochte, the Florida-based swimmer who has been declaring London his time to emerge from Phelps' long shadow, has been the fastest 400 IM swimmer this year, swimming it in 4 minutes, 7.06 seconds at the trials in Omaha. Phelps came in second at 4:07.89, also the second fastest in the world this year.

With echoes almost still ringing of the Paul McCartney-led sing-along to "Hey Jude" that concluded Friday night's Opening Ceremonies, crowds began lining up Saturday morning at the Aquatic Centre and other venues in Olympic Park.

Peter Vanderkaay and Conor Dwyer, finishing 2 and 3 in the preliminaries of the 400-meter freestyle, advance into Saturday night's medal round.

Caitlin Leverenz finished eighth in her 400 IM heat, to qualify with first-place finisher Beisel for the evening finals.

Brendan Hansen and Eric Shanteau advanced to the semifinals in the 100-meter breaststroke. Claire Donahue advanced with Vollmer to the semifinals of the 100 fly.