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Associated Press
Amanda Beard swims in the women's 200-meter breaststroke preliminaries at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., Thursday.

OMAHA, Neb. — Natalie Coughlin qualified fastest in the 100-meter freestyle preliminaries, with 41-year-old Dara Torres third-quickest at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials Thursday.

Coughlin's time of 53.64 seconds set a trials record but was off her American mark of 53.39. Lacey Nymeyer was second-fastest in 54.06.

"That was faster than I thought I would go," said Coughlin, who lost to Katie Hoff in the 200 individual medley a night earlier. "The 200 IM took a lot out of me."

Torres, seeking to make her fifth Olympic team and first since 2000, won her heat in 54.57. She was slowest off the blocks of the top 16 qualifiers, some not even half her age, including 19-year-old Hoff.

But Torres led after the first turn and powered home, then took off the large, old-style goggles that other swimmers jokingly have suggested require windshield wipers to check her time.

"She looked great," Coughlin said. "She's really, really strong. If everything goes well, I think she'd be a great relay teammate, a great teammate."

Torres was the bronze medalist in the 100 free eight years ago in Sydney, where she was the most decorated female athlete with five medals after emerging from a seven-year retirement. She skipped the 2004 Athens Olympics after having her first child.

"She's a fierce competitor. She always has been," said 17-year-old Samantha Woodward, who wasn't yet born when Torres made her Olympic debut in 1984. "She looks great for 41. If I'm still competing and look like that at 41, it will be a miracle."

Hoff advanced to the evening semifinals with the eighth-fastest time of 54.95. She's already made the team in four individual events and the 800 free relay.

Also moving on were 2004 Olympians Kara Lynn Joyce, Margaret Hoelzer, Amanda Weir and Dana Vollmer. They were joined by Christine Magnuson, winner of the 100 butterfly, and Jessica Hardy, the 100 breaststroke winner.

Amanda Beard kept alive her hopes of making a fourth Olympic team at age 26, qualifying third in the 200 breaststroke. The defending Olympic champion touched in 2 minutes, 26.96 seconds.

"I'm completely shocked by that," she said. "It didn't hurt as bad as I was expecting it to, and I certainly didn't expect to go 26 (seconds). 28 was my best time coming in."

Rebecca Soni was fastest in 2:24.65 (fifth-best in the world this year), followed by 27-year-old Keri Hehn, in 2:25.93.

"I could definitely tell with the crowd cheering that everyone was behind me," Soni said.

Soni, Hehn and Beard trained together at Southern California until recently, when Beard left because the atmosphere between the rivals was "a little contentious," USC coach Dave Salo said.

Megan Jendrick, who earned her second Olympic berth eight years after winning 100 breast gold in Sydney, was sixth-fastest heading into the evening semifinals.

Tara Kirk's meet ended badly, with the 2004 Olympian failing to get out of the prelims in her lesser event. She placed 32nd — 9.09 seconds behind Soni. Kirk lost out on grabbing the second spot in the 100 breast by one-hundredth of a second a year after winning silver at the world championships.

Defending Olympic champion Aaron Peirsol led the way in the 200 backstroke prelims. He qualified for the evening semifinals in 1:57.05, ahead of Nick Thoman, who was 18th at the trials four years ago.

"You don't make the team in the morning," said Peirsol, already on his third Olympic team with his win in the 100 back. "You're just trying to set up the next race. I'm trying to gauge where I am."

Ryan Lochte was fourth-quickest (1:58.25) in pursuit of his first victory of the meet. He ended Peirsol's seven-year winning streak in the 200 back at last year's world championships in Australia, and set the world mark.