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Phelps Sets Olympic Record

Michael Phelps's arduous program in his third Olympic Games began tonight at the National Aquatic Center in Beijing with an easy and dominant swim in the preliminary heats of the men's 400-meter individual medley - setting a new Olympic record before he even has a chance to swim for a medal.

Phelps posted the best time of the day - 4 minutes, 7.82 seconds, better than the mark he set in Athens of 4:08.26 - in advancing to Sunday morning's final. That was better than fellow American Ryan Lochte, who came from behind to win his heat in 4:10.33, ranking fourth overall. Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, the bronze medalist four years ago in Athens, had the second fastest time (4:09.26), with Italy's Luca Marin third (4:10.22).

But it was Phelps who impressed the crowd during the first race at the "Water Cube," as the venue is known, going out in the butterfly leg under his own world-record pace, looking easy and relaxed the rest of the way.

"I'm happy to get the first-race jitters sort of out," Phelps said immediately afterward. "The first race is probably one of the most important ones, to get it out of your system. I'm pretty satisfied with that time. I didn't think I was going to be that fast in the prelims."

Phelps, though, said the pace set in the earlier heats - including Cseh's time - made him seek a better time during his first swim. The top time in the preliminary heats gets Lane 4 for the final, considered the most advantageous position because it is in the middle of the pool.

"That was something I really wanted to do after watching the first three heats," Phelps said.

The 400 IM could well be Phelps's greatest test in an individual race here. He owns the world record in the event - as he does in three other individual races he'll swim here - and he set it the last time he raced in it, at the U.S. trials. But the night Phelps swam his record 4:05.25, Lochte also bettered the old mark - though Phelps still beat him by .83 of a second.

Phelps has owned this record since 2002, when he was 17, taking it from American Tom Dolan and dropping it six times since then, including when he won gold at the Athens Games. Still, it is expected to be pushed not only by Lochte, but by Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, who won his heat in a time of 4:09.26.

If Phelps can hold off both those challenges in the first final of the meet - Sunday morning here, Saturday night in the United States - he will have overcome one of his most significant obstacles in his pursuit of eight gold medals, one more than Mark Spitz's record seven won in an individual Games. But another potential problem awaits in the same session.

More swimming updates to come, including from the women's 400 IM and the preliminary heats of that freestyle relay. Phelps will not swim in the preliminary heat.

Editors' note: related -- here's Barry's story on Phelps published overnight.

By Barry Svrluga  |  August 9, 2008; 6:52 AM ET
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