By Ian Ransom
ADELAIDE (Reuters) - Ian Thorpe raised a collective sigh of relief at the Australian swimming trials on Friday as he eased into the semi-finals of the 200 meters freestyle to keep his London ambitions on track.
Thorpe, whose rushed comeback after five years out of the pool to bid for a third Olympics has captured the public imagination Down Under, was roared onto a dead heat for second in his morning preliminary to qualify equal fifth fastest.
The five-times Olympic champion's time of one minute, 49.16 seconds was his fastest since returning to competition in November, although it was nearly a second shy of pace-setter Ryan Napoleon and more than five seconds adrift of his own personal best set in 2001.
Should Thorpe make Saturday evening's final but miss out on a berth for the individual event reserved for the winner and runner-up, a top-six finish will at least ensure he is considered for selection to the four-member freestyle relay team.
After months of training in secret, the 11-times world champion announced his return to the pool just over a year ago with the goal of competing at London.
He has struggled to post competitive times since returning to action, fuelling rampant speculation by local media that he was saving his best for the trials, despite repeatedly writing off his own chances.
The cost of his comeback bid has also proved controversial, with local media reporting disaffection among local swimming ranks over the funding of Thorpe's specialized training in Switzerland and the Middle East.
But he started well and powered to the lead after the first turn, before being reeled in during the final lap by winner Napoleon and David McKeon, who tied him for second.
"It's sort of the business end now and that's what he likes.
"It was terrific to see those schoolkids in here today all going off their brain and I was reliving the moment at the trials in 2004 when Ian fell in."
Thorpe will also compete in the 100 freestyle but has a tall order qualifying for that event, which boasts an ultra-competitive field including world champion James Magnussen and the other three members of the gold-medal winning relay team from last year's world championships in Shanghai.
Another swimmer on the comeback trail, Olympic 100 breaststroke champion Leisel Jones eased into the evening semi-finals of the event, winning her heat to be third fastest behind Leiston Pickett.
Belinda Hocking, runner-up in the 200 backstroke at last year's world championships in Shanghai, qualified fastest for the semi-finals of the 100, edging out teenage Olympic medley gold medalist Emily Seebohm.
Kylie Palmer, runner-up in the 200 freestyle at Shanghai, topped qualifying for the final of the 400 event, while Benja Treffers was fastest into the men's 100 backstroke semi-finals.
(Editing by John O'Brien)