LONDON - Michael Phelps opened defense of his title in the 200-meter individual medley at the London Games on Wednesday, hours after becoming the most decorated Olympian ever with his 19th career medal.
Phelps' time of 1 minute, 58.24 seconds was good for the fourth-fastest time in the preliminaries. Teammate Ryan Lochte was second-quickest at 1:58.03 a short time after he advanced in the 200 backstroke heats.
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Lochte is seeking his first gold in the event. He won the bronze four years ago in Beijing, and was second behind Phelps at the 2004 Athens Games. Phelps is trying to become the first male swimmer to win the same individual event in three consecutive Olympics, although Japan's Kosuke Kitajima has a shot at achieving the feat first when he swims in the 200 breaststroke final Wednesday night.
The 200 IM final is Thursday.
Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, the silver medalist in 2008, led the way in 1:57.20. Kosuke Hagino of Japan was sandwiched between Lochte and Phelps in third at 1:58.22.
Chad le Clos of South Africa, who out-touched Phelps for gold in the 200 fly on Wednesday, advanced to the evening semifinals in 11th.
Tyler Clary and Lochte qualified 1-2 in the 200 backstroke, positioning themselves to extend the American dominance of the event.
Clary won his heat in 1:56.24. Two heats later, Lochte rallied over the final lap to win in 1:56.36 as he tries to defend the gold medal he won in 2008.
"I was happy with how I swam," Clary said. "I was able to swim more like I know I can and not like the nervous wreck I was the last couple of days."
He finished fifth in the 200 butterfly on Tuesday, the same race in which Phelps settled for silver, his 18th career medal.
"I thought it was pretty cool when I woke up this morning and saw he had gotten a tweet from President Obama," Clary said of Phelps, who later earned his record 19th career Olympic medal when the U.S. won the 4x200 free relay.
The U.S. has won the 200 back in the last four Olympics, and finished 1-2 in three of them. Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman earlier claimed the gold and silver medals in the 100 back.
Lochte is looking to get back on track after two disappointing finishes. He won the 400 individual medley in dominating fashion on Day 1 of the swimming competition, then faltered as the anchor of the 4x100 freestyle relay and finished fourth in the 200 free.
Zhang Fenglin of China was third-quickest in the backstroke in 1:56.71, followed by Ryosuke Irie of Japan in 1:56.81. Arkady Vyatchanin of Russia, the bronze medalist four years ago, finished 17th, one spot out of the evening semifinals.
Tang Yi of China led the women's 100 freestyle heats, with defending Olympic champion Britta Steffen of Germany back in the pack.
Tang won her heat in 53.28 seconds. China has only won three medals in the event, though two of them were gold in 1992 and 1996.
Melanie Schlanger of Australia was second-quickest in 53.50. World champion Jeanette Ottesen Gray of Denmark was third in 53.51.
Dutch sprinter Ranomi Kromowidjojo moved on in fifth in 53.66. Jessica Hardy of the U.S. advanced to the semifinals in eighth at 54.09. Her teammate Missy Franklin tied for 10th with Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden at 54.26.
"I'm really excited about the 100 backstroke still," said Franklin, who won her first Olympic gold medal in that event on Monday. "I'm saving something for the freestyle."
Steffen, who swept the 50 and 100 freestyles in Beijing, was 14th at 54.42.
"I hope I can swim better this evening," she said. "I felt a bit flat this morning."
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