ADELAIDE, Australia -- Ian Thorpe swam his fastest 200-meter freestyle time since coming out of retirement to reach the semifinals of the Australian Olympic trials, continuing his quest to qualify for London 2012.
The screaming from the crowd started the moment the five-time Olympic champion stepped onto the blocks in lane seven Friday morning and didn't end until he'd finished in a dead heat for second place in heat seven to ensure he'd progress to the next round.
Thorpe and David McKeon finished in 1 minute, 49.16 seconds, tied for the fifth-fastest time going into Friday night's semifinals. Ryan Napoleon won that heat and was the fastest qualifier for the semifinals in 1:48.27.
"It's a pretty decent time," said the 29-year-old Thorpe, who will swim in lane three in the second semifinal Friday night. "I'm happy with that swim."
Thorpe's personal best is 1:44.06 from the 2001 world championships, which stood as a world record for eight years -- from 2001 to 2009- and remains the Commonwealth and Australian records.
Most of the focus on the Australian trials is on Thorpe, who announced his comeback last year after deciding to retire in 2006. He was the reigning 200- and 400-meter freestyle Olympic champion when he quit swimming competitively, and had set 13 individual world records after bursting onto the international scene as a teenager with size 17 feet in 1999.
His times since returning to competition late in 2011 have been modest by his standards and have led some critics to say he has been "foxing," or swimming slower than he's capable of just to keep the competition guessing.
Before the Australian trials, where he's also swimming the 100 freestyle and must finish first or second in the 100 or 200 to qualify for an individual spot at London, he said he'd hadn't had the luxury of foxing and was as nervous now as he was ahead of his first Olympics at Sydney in 2000.
His best chance of qualifying is as a relay swimmer, which means he has to finish at least in the top six in the finals and gamble on selectors giving him a chance.
Thorpe has dispensed with the sleek, black full-length bodysuit at the trials and was wearing only knee-length swimming trunks, showing off a trimmed-down but still hulking physique.
He has plenty of competition from younger contenders in the 200, with McKeon upsetting Napoleon on the opening night of the trials to win the 400 freestyle and 20-year-old Thomas Fraser-Holmes -- the fastest 200 freestyler in Australia last year -- setting the national record to win the 400 individual medley on Thursday night.
Fraser-Holmes had the eighth-fastest time of the 16 semifinal qualifiers in the 200 heats in 1:49.22.
In other Friday morning races, Emily Seebohm, an Olympic medley relay gold medalist and Beijing Olympic gold medalist Stephanie Rice's main rival in the 200 IM, glided through her 100-meter backstroke heat in 1:00.90. Australian champion Belinda Hocking was the quickest qualifier in 59.89.
Reigning Olympic champion Leisel Jones was the third-fastest qualifier for the women's 100 breaststroke semifinals with a time of 1:08.33 in her heat.
Triple gold medalist Rice, the so-called golden girl of the Beijing Olympics, secured the first spot on the Australian swimming team for London when she won the 400 IM in 4 minutes, 33.45 seconds on Thursday night.
Rice had surgery to repair a damaged tendon in her right shoulder last year and struggled to regain her form. She was fourth fastest in the heats but was too strong from the start of the final, giving up the lead for only a few meters in the race and winning by more than four seconds from Blair Evans (4:37.80).
"It's the biggest relief -- the biggest weight lifted off my shoulders," Rice said. "To be able to say now, 'I'm going to London,' is such a huge relief."