By Julian Linden
LONDON (Reuters) - Michael Phelps was just inches away from making a shock early exit on a sensational opening day to the swimming competition at the London Olympics on Saturday that saw South Korea's defending champion Park Tae-hwan disqualified.
Phelps got his hand on the wall in the nick of time to scrape into the final of the men's 400 meters individual medley, an event he easily won at the past two Olympics, but as the slowest qualifier.
"I didn't expect those guys to go that fast in the heats," said Phelps. "I think the only thing that matters is getting a spot. You can't get the gold medal from the morning."
The American won his heat but only after making a desperate lunge on his final stroke to pip Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, who won the silver in Beijing four years ago.
The difference between the two was just 0.07 seconds, but the tiny margin could not have been more significant with Phelps sneaking into the final and Cseh missing out.
Ryan Lochte, the world champion and favorite to win the gold medal in the final later on Saturday, was third fastest overall after Japan's Kosuke Hagino set the quickest time.
Lochte's clash with Phelps has been billed as one of the great rivalries of the Games and while both were below their best in the heats, they were still expected to slug it out in the final.
"It didn't feel so good, but that was my first race, and my first race is always the worst one," Lochte said. "It's a tough field. But he's (Phelps) in."
Park, who became a national hero in South Korea when he won the 400 freestyle gold medal in Beijing four years ago, easily won his heat on Saturday only to discover he had been disqualified for a false start, a rare event in middle-distance races, when he apparently flinched on the blocks.
He locked himself in a bathroom for two hours when he was disqualified at Athens in 2004 and said he had no idea how it could have happened again.
"I don't know why I was disqualified, I will have to speak to my coach," he told reporters.
Swimming officials later said the South Korean team had appealed the disqualification but should it stand, China's Sun Yang emerged as the overwhelming favorite to win the final and become the first Chinese man to win an Olympic swimming title.
Sun set the fastest overall time, just ahead of American Peter Vanderkaay, while another of his big dangers, German world record holder Paul Biedermann, missed out on the final after finishing 12th overall.
"I'm very disappointed for Park Tae-hwan," said Sun.
"I was really looking forward to racing him in the final and now that won't happen."
Elizabeth Beisel sailed into the final of the women's 400m individual medley with the fastest qualifying time.
The American, who is looking to add the Olympic gold to the world title she won in Shanghai last year, was just 0.05 ahead of China's Ye Shiwen, setting the stage for an epic final that could rival the men's event.
Australia's Stephanie Rice, the defending Olympic champion and world record holder, got into the final in seventh place after saving her energy for the final.
"There are some really hot times," said Rice.
"These are races where you have to be quick to make the final because everyone wants to be in there, but at the same time you have to try and conserve something because it is such a taxing race."
Australia stormed into the final of the women's 4x100 freestyle final when they clocked the fastest time ahead of the United States, Netherlands and China, although they all rested their best swimmers from the preliminaries.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)
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