Phelps-Lochte I was nearly over before it began.
Perhaps conserving a little too much energy, Michael Phelps qualified eighth in the 400-meter individual medley Saturday morning, taking the last spot in the evening's final by just .07 seconds in a close call that almost spoiled the most anticipated race of the London Olympics.
"A final spot is a final spot," said Phelps.
U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte, swimming in a different heat, qualified third fastest overall in the event he won against Phelps at U.S. trials last month.
Queen Elizabeth II popped into the Aquatics Centre to wave only hours after she opened the games at Friday night's rollicking ceremony. Four years ago, U.S. President George W. Bush showed up to watch Phelps win his first of a record-setting eight gold medals.
W. got a better show in Beijing, where the swimming finals were held in the morning to accommodate viewers back home in the states.
Phelps won his heat Saturday, but only barely. He lagged behind Hungary's Laszlo Cseh during the breaststroke -- the third of four strokes used in the medley -- and did just enough during the last 50 meters of the freestyle to touch first.
His time -- 4 minutes, 13.33 seconds -- beat Cseh, the 2008 silver medalist, for the last spot in the final.
"When I saw the time I was like, oh. It is going to be a challenge," said Phelps.
Phelps has won more golds, 14, than any other Olympian and has 16 overall medals. He is chasing the medal record of 18 set by Larisa Latynina, a Russian gymnast who competed in the 1950s and 60s. He should swim in seven races here, including one more against Lochte.
He won the 400 IM at the last two Olympics, setting world records both times, but has threatened to drop the tough race from his repertoire in the past. His mark from Beijing still stands. It's 4:03.84 -- nearly 10 seconds faster than he was Saturday morning.
"It's hard," said Lochte. "It's a tough field. He's in. You can't count him out even though he just squeaked in eighth. He's a racer. We're going to do everything we can to go one-two tonight."
Lochte was beating le Clos for much of the final heat but pulled up down the stretch. The American's time was 4:12.35 -- .11 seconds behind le Close and more than 2 1/2 ticks slower than Hagino's Asian record of 4:10.01.
"I am not going to lie, that hurt," said Lochte. "I got all the cobwebs out. Tonight is going to be a race."
Reigning Olympic gold medalist Park Tae-hwan was initially disqualified from the men's 400-meter freestyle because of a false start, but the ruling was overturned after an appeal by South Korea's swimming federation, moving him into Saturday night's final.
Ryan Cochrane, the Canadian record holder in the 400, was bumped from the eighth and final qualifying spot.
Earlier, Cochrane had written on Twitter: "Snuck right in that final for tonight! I'm excited to see how it all pans out..." before adding, "anything can happen at the olympics!"
Natalie Coughlin will get a chance to win her 12th Olympic medal after she swam with the women's 400-meter freestyle relay team.
The 29-year-old Coughlin is one medal shy of tying fellow swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for most among American women at the Olympics.
If the Americans finish in the top three in the final, Coughlin will get a medal even if she doesn't swim in it. The four swimmers who went Saturday morning qualified second fastest behind Australia, which was in another heat.
The Americans were in third place when Coughlin dove into the pool but she put them in the lead for good after her first 50 meters.
Also Saturday, Brendan Hansen, back after shunning retirement for another chance to win the individual gold that eluded him in Athens and Beijing, was through to the semifinals of the 100 breast along with fellow American Eric Shanteau.
Dana Vollmer set Olympic and U.S. records in 100-meter fly heats with a time of 56.25 seconds, beating a 12-year-old games mark held by Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands since the Sydney Games.
Americans Peter Vanderkaay and Conor Dwyer qualified second and third in the 400-meter free.