Michael Phelps beats Ryan Lochte again

OMAHA -- Michael Phelps: The Sequel. Ryan Lochte: The Foil.

That is the dominant plot for the U.S. swimming team in the 2012 Olympics, and Saturday night offered a glimpse of just how entertaining that story line might be. Phelps and Lochte raced within a quarter-second of each other from start to finish in the finals of the 200 individual medley, with no one else within four seconds of them.

Phelps won, his second victory in three head-to-head matches at these trials, with the promise of three rematches in London.

“This meet is just steppingstones for what I really want to do in London,” Lochte said.

“I’m sure that won’t be the end of us going back and forth,” Phelps said.

Phelps won a record eight gold medals in Beijing, and a top-two finish in Sunday’s 100 butterfly (in which he holds the world record) gives him the chance for eight more in London.

Lochte also will swim the 100 fly Sunday. He had the sixth-best time in Saturday’s semifinals — Phelps had the fastest — and so Lochte appears unlikely to finish in the top two.

But the chance for that finish — and with it his own chance for eight medals in London — compelled Lochte to swim three events Saturday night, all within an hour.

“Probably the most pain I have endured in swimming competition,” Lochte said.

Tyler Clary of Riverside earned his second ticket to London, finishing second to Lochte in the 200 backstroke after finishing second to Phelps in the 200 butterfly — and third behind Lochte and Phelps in the 400 individual medley.

“They’re older than I am,” Clary said. “Eventually, they’re going to stop swimming.”

Clary is 23. Lochte is 27, and Phelps celebrated his 27th birthday Saturday.

“After you get past 25, there’s no point in even counting any more,” Phelps said.

Coughlin’s in

Natalie Coughlin barely made her third consecutive Olympic team, finishing sixth in the 100 freestyle to win the last spot on the 400 freestyle relay squad. She failed to qualify for London in any individual events, but a medal in the relay would give her 12 Olympic medals, tied for the most of any female American swimmer.

“This wasn’t the meet I visualized or anticipated,” she said. “Right now, I couldn’t be happier.”

Coughlin went out fast but faded badly in the final 25 meters, and she recalled her thoughts in those final desperate seconds.

“ ‘Get my hand on the freaking wall,’ ” she said, “but it wasn’t so PC.”

Beard’s out

Amanda Beard failed to make her fifth consecutive Olympic team. She placed fifth in the 200 breaststroke, an event in which she formerly held the world record.

“I’m not heartbroken,” Beard said. “I’m not disappointed in myself at all.”

Beard, 30, said her immediate priority would be to try to have a second child, but she said she would consider another shot at the Olympics.

“The best way to lose baby weight is to swim and work out,” she said. “I don’t rule out 2016.”

Hardy stuff

Jessica Hardy of Long Beach won the 100 freestyle, earning an Olympic bid four years after testing positive for a banned substance and giving up her spot on the U.S. team. Hardy satisfied arbitrators that a contaminated supplement was to blame, and the International Olympic Committee reinstated her last year.

“I can’t tell you how happy and incredibly grateful I am,” she said.

USC alum Rebecca Soni won the 200 breaststroke. She previously made the Olympic team in the 100 breaststroke.

Waiting game

Jason Lezak of Irvine made his name in the men’s 400 freestyle relay in the 2008 Olympics, but he might not get the chance for an encore. He earned the final spot on the relay squad by finishing sixth in the 100 freestyle Friday, but U.S. men’s national team Coach Gregg Troy refused to commit to using Lezak in London.

“We’ve got eight to nine really great freestylers, and we’re going to put the fastest race together that we can,” Troy said. “We’ll make that decision in London.”

Phelps and Lochte each could be selected for a relay leg, even though neither one competed in the finals of the 100 free. The four swimmers the U.S. enters in the qualifying heat need not be the same four it enters in the finals.