ATHENS, Greece (AP) - Michael Phelps made his first day in the Olympic pool look easy.
He began his quest to break Mark Spitz's record of seven Olympic gold medals as the fastest swimmer in morning preliminaries for the 400-meter
individual medley with a time of 4 minutes, 13.29 seconds - well off his world record of 4:08.41.
He was to return Saturday night for the eight-man final as the overwhelming favorite to win his first gold medal of the Athens Games. American
swimmers have finished 1-2 in the event at the last two Olympics.
"I felt comfortable and in control. I'm not worried about time," he said. "I just want to get my hand on the wall first."
Ian Thorpe, the superstar of the Sydney Games, settled for being the second-fastest qualifier behind Australian teammate Grant Hackett in the 400
Hackett finished in 3:46.36. Thorpe, the world record holder, was next in 3:46.55.
"It's always nice to be together," Hackett said. "You want to race the best in the field. You want to be right next to him."
Four-time Olympian Jenny Thompson advanced in the 100 butterfly, but the Americans suffered a disappointment when 15-year-old Katie Hoff got knocked
out of the 400 individual medley.
Thorpe fell off the starting blocks and was disqualified at the Australian trials in March, but teammate Craig Stevens gave up his berth in the 400
free so Thorpe could defend his Olympic title.
This time, he didn't fall in, but Thorpe was slow off the blocks.
"I was trying to be last off the blocks this morning, so I'll be first off the blocks tonight," he said, jokingly.
On the deck, though, Thorpe was all business. He walked out barefoot wearing a full black body suit, with his cap and goggles already on. Most
swimmers remove layers of clothing, jackets and shoes in the moments before a race.
Larsen Jensen of Bakersfield, Calif., chased Thorpe to the wall in their heat and was third quickest in 3:46.90. Massimiliano Rosolino of Italy, the
2000 silver medalist, also made the eight-man evening final in 3:47.72. Klete Keller of Phoenix, the bronze medalist four years ago, was fifth in
Thompson moved on to the evening semifinals of the 100 butterfly with the sixth-fastest time of 58.77 seconds. Thompson is seeking her first
individual Olympic gold medal; all of her eight golds have been in relays.
Rachel Komisarz of Louisville, Ky., was eighth in 59.38. The top 16 women qualified.
Thompson, the most decorated female U.S. Olympian, could get a chance to win her record-tying ninth in the 400 freestyle relay final Saturday
The American coaches hadn't told any of the swimmers who was going to get the nod in the evening final, although Thompson seemed an obvious choice.
Also assured of joining the evening team was Natalie Coughlin of Concord, Calif.
The Australian team of Alice Mills, Lisbeth Lenton, Sarah Ryan and Jodie Henry qualified first in 3:38.26. Americans Amanda Weir, Colleen Lanne,
Lindsay Benko and Maritza Correia - the first black woman to make a U.S. Olympic swimming team - were second in 3:39.46.
Hoff, who swims at the same North Baltimore club as Phelps, failed to make the final in the 400 IM and vomited after her heat. She was 17th in 4:47.49
after winning the event at the U.S. trials last month.
Defending Olympic champion Yana Klochkova was the top qualifier in the event. The world record holder finished in 4:38.36. Kaitlin Sandeno of Lake
Forest, Calif., was second in 4:40.21.
Petria Thomas of Australia led the way in the 100 fly, qualifying in 54.47 seconds. Otylia Jedrzejczak of Poland was second in 57.84.
Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands, the 30-year-old defending Olympic champion, was third in 58.47. Martina Moracova of Slovakia, the 2000 silver
medalist, was fourth in 58.48.
Phelps is nearly four seconds faster than anyone else in the world this year in the 400 IM. The 19-year-old from Baltimore lowered his own world
record at last month's U.S. trials.
He won his heat by three body lengths over teammate Erik Vendt of North Easton, Mass., who qualified sixth for the final in 4:16.68.
Phelps wiped off the starting block with a USA towel, then stripped down to his jammer suit that ended just above his knees. He removed the large
headphones that covered his ears and climbed atop the block.
Bob Bowman, his coach, said Phelps told him he could go much faster in the final.
Laszlo Cseh of Hungary was second quickest in 4:14.26 and Alessio Boggiatto of Italy was third in 4:15.76. Greek fans cheered loudly for countryman
Ioannis Kokkodis, who made the final in fifth place.
As expected, the men's 100 breaststroke will be a showdown between Kosuke Kitajima of Japan and Brendan Hansen of Havertown, Pa. Kitajima, who lost
his world record to Hansen last month, advanced to the evening semifinal in an Olympic record time of 1:00.03.
Hansen, whose world mark is 59.30, was second quickest in 1:00.25. Mark Gangloff of Akron, Ohio, was third in 1:00.81. Roman Sludnov of Russia, the
2000 bronze medalist, was 10th among 16 swimmers who advanced.
The Greeks were on their feet chanting when Spyridon Gianniotis qualified for the 400 free final. Their revelry broke out again after Vasiliki
Angelopoulou qualified in the women's 400 individual medley.
There were pockets of empty seats at the stadium on the first day of competition. Swimmers and fans contended with a searing sun that pushed
temperatures to 88 degrees at the 10 a.m. start of preliminaries.