Beiijing:Michael Phelps opened his quest to win eight gold medals by qualifying 1.44 seconds faster than his rivals with an Olympic-record time in the 400-meter individual medley preliminaries on Saturday night.
The American won his heat in 4 minutes, 7.82 seconds _ 44-hundredths of a second better than his gold-medal-winning time four years ago in Athens. Phelps was under his world-record pace after 150 meters of the four-stroke race, but eased off to save something for Sunday morning's final.
"I am pretty surprised," he said. "I didn't think that I'd be first to get it, not until the finals."
Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, the bronze medalist in Athens, was second-fastest in 4:09.26. Luca Marin of Italy was third in 4:10.22, and American Ryan Lochte qualified fourth in 4:10.33.
Phelps walked onto the deck of the Water Cube for his first of his 17 races overall in front of 17,000 fans, who were mostly quiet. If they were aware of Phelps' attempt to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single games, it wasn't apparent.
He wiped down the starting block in lane four with a white towel as Lochte churned through the final meters of his heat. Phelps first stretched his right leg on the block, then his left before removing his ear buds and getting ready to race.
Phelps and Lochte went 1-2 at the U.S. trials, with the good friends both going under world-record time. Phelps set the world mark of 4:05.25, while Lochte's time was the second-fastest ever. Phelps beat Lochte at last year's world championships by more than 3 1/2 seconds.
Still, Lochte is considered a threat to Phelps' gold rush in both the 400 and 200 IMs.
"It's going to be a tough one, but I'm sure going to give him a run for his money," Lochte said. "If I'm right there with him, then that's pressure."
The crowd came alive for the women's 100 butterfly, where China sent out its first two swimmers of the competition. Zhou Yafei tied American Christine Magnuson for second-quickest in 57.70 seconds. Leading the way was Jess Schipper of Australia in 57.58.
"It's always great to get the first race over and done with," Schipper said. "But a few things went wrong there and still going in fastest qualifier for the semifinal, it's great to know that I have something to improve on."
The other Chinese, Xu Yanwei, was 32nd and didn't advance to the semifinals. Neither did Otylia Jedrzejczak of Poland, the silver medalist in Athens who finished four-hundredths of a second out of the 16th and last spot.
American Elaine Breeden moved on in sixth place, as did world champion Libby Trickett of Australia, who was 12th.
"I was expecting to be faster," Trickett said. "Obviously having the heats at night shakes things up a little bit. I know I have more than that in me."
American Larsen Jensen advanced to the 400 freestyle final as the fastest qualifier in 3:43.10.
China really had something to cheer and wave its red flags about when countryman Zhang Lin outtouched world champion Park Tae-hwan of Korea to win his heat. Zhang was second overall in 3:43.32. Park was third in 3:43.35.
Grant Hackett will try to give Australia its third consecutive victory in the 400 free, but he'll have to make up time in the final after advancing in fifth place at 3:44.03. Countryman Ian Thorpe won it in 2000 and 2004, but has since retired.
"I knew it would be quick, but not quite that quick," Hackett said. "It's going to be interesting in the morning."
Also advancing were American Peter Vanderkaay and Ous Mellouli of Tunisia, returning to the Olympics after serving an 18-month suspension for a positive drug test.