Phelps beats own record in heat; Hoff second-fastest in women's 400 IM

BEIJING -- The routine is always the same: Wipe down the starting block with a towel, stretch out each leg, step up from the side of the platform, flap those long arms so hard they slap him in the back.

Then Michael Phelps gets down to business.

A workmanlike Phelps won his opening race at the Beijing Olympics on Saturday night, providing a tantalizing glimpse of what might be coming. His time in the preliminaries of the 400-meter individual medley was 4 minutes, 7.82 seconds -- which would have been good enough for gold at the Athens Games.

"I wasn't expecting the heats to be that fast," Phelps said. "But after seeing the first two heats, I kind of wanted to be the top seed going into tomorrow, and that's all I went out and did."

With Phelps, it's that simple.

If someone is swimming fast, he'll go faster. If someone is standing in the way of him breaking Mark Spitz's record, he'll take them down.

Phelps, of course, is trying to win eight gold medals in Beijing, which would be one more than Spitz's historic haul in Munich 36 summers ago.

Well, it's one race down, 16 to go.

"Getting that first race under your belt," he said, "feels really good."

Phelps' time was easily the best of the prelims -- 0.44 second ahead of his gold medal-winning time in 2004 and nearly a second and a half faster than anyone else managed on the opening night of swimming. Then it was off to bed before the Sunday morning finals, which will be his first chance to win gold at these games.

His top rival, fellow American Ryan Lochte, was only the fourth-fastest qualifier and knows what it will take to stop Phelps.

"A perfect race," Lochte said.

U.S. swimmer Katie Hoff, who like Phelps qualified in five individual events, opened her ambitious schedule as the second-fastest qualifier in the women's 400 IM. Hoff, the world record holder, was timed in 4:34.63 -- 0.08 second behind 15-year-old teammate Elizabeth Beisel.

For Hoff, it was a much different result than her first Olympic race in 2004, when she was overcome by nerves, failed to advance out of the prelims and threw up on the deck afterward.

"It was definitely on my mind a little bit," Hoff said. "It can't not be."

Phelps, on the other hand, never seems flustered by anything.

He was under his world-record pace after 150 meters of the four-stroke race, but eased off to save something for the one that really matters. Even so, he still broke his own Olympic record.

"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, while Lochte settled for fourth in 4:10.33.

"Overall, that was a pretty good race," Lochte said. "That was my best morning -- uhh, prelim swim -- so I'm happy with it."

Phelps and Lochte went 1-2 at the U.S. trials, where the good friends both went under the old world record time. Phelps set the standard of 4:05.25, while Lochte's time was the second-fastest ever.

But Phelps beat Lochte at last year's world championships by more than 3½ seconds, and it looks as though he wants to make another emphatic statement in Beijing.

"It's going to be a tough one," Lochte acknowledged. "But I'm sure going give him a run for his money."

China had a strong showing in front of its red flag-waving, chanting fans.

The host country qualified fastest in the women's 400 freestyle relay, touching in 3:36.78 to a raucous ovation. The quartet of Zhu Yingwen, Tang Yi, Xu Yanwei and Pang Jiaying waved as they walked off the deck.

Germany was second. The U.S. team of Kara Lynn Joyce, Julia Smit, Emily Silver and Lacey Nymeyer was third in 3:37.53. The U.S. team saved Natalie Coughlin and 41-year-old Dara Torres for Sunday's final.

Another American, Larsen Jensen, advanced to the 400 freestyle final as the fastest qualifier in 3:43.10. 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'm going to have a double shot of espresso tomorrow morning," Jensen said, "and I'll be ready."

Alexander Dale Oen matched Phelps in one respect. The Norwegian set an Olympic record of 59.41 in the 100 breaststroke prelims, ahead of defending champion Kosuke Kitajima of Japan, who touched in 59.52.

Brendan Hansen tied for 10th in 1:00.36, failing to break a minute in his world-record event, one in which he owns the five fastest times ever. This is the American's only chance to claim an individual medal at these Olympics; he stunningly failed to qualify in the 200 breaststroke at the U.S. trials

But it sounds as though he's struggling to break out of a slump that couldn't have come at a worst time. His coach was troubled when Hansen came out in a jammer -- a suit that only goes from the waist to just above the knees.

"I think that's the first time he's worn a jammer in two years," said Eddie Reese, who also serves as coach of the U.S. men's team. "I hope to talk him into something that will cover more of his body."

Hansen said he's trying to lay low.

"I don't want to be the center of attention going into the final," he said. "I don't swim well when I'm the center of attention."