They're Older but Still Enjoying Fast Times

Times Staff Writer

They were Energizer bunnies in the pool, and out of it too, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Everyone's favorite kid brother, Aaron Peirsol of the Irvine Novaquatics, had decorated his living quarters there with posters and Maxim magazines, with the assistance of the baby of the swim team, 15-year-old Michael Phelps from Baltimore.

Three years ago might as well be a lifetime in swimming. All you need to know about how the youngsters of the Olympic class of 2000 are faring are these words:

World record: Phelps broke his own mark in the 200-meter butterfly, going an inspired 1 minute 53.93 seconds in the semifinals, thrilling the crowd for the world swimming championships at Palau Sant Jordi. It was the fourth world record of the event, but the first by an American. His old mark, of 1:54.58, was set on July 24, 2001 in Fukuoka, Japan.

And gold medal: Peirsol won his first world championship title in the 100 backstroke, coming within one-hundredth of a second of Lenny Krayzelburg's world record of 53.60. Peirsol, whose time was 53.61, upset the reigning world champion Matt Welsh of Australia, who tied for second with Arkady Vyatchanin of Russia in 53.92. Peirsol held his arms in the air for several seconds after touching the wall first.

Phelps turned 18 on June 30, and Peirsol leaves behind his teen years today, his 20th birthday. And so the kids did all right Tuesday. As did Peirsol's kid sister, 17-year-old Hayley Peirsol, who won a silver medal in the 1,500 freestyle, dropping nearly 11 seconds off her personal best, going 16:09.64. Germany's Hannah Stockbauer won in 16:00.18.

If Monday was the day for the Australians to step to the forefront, then Day 3 tilted back to the Americans. Though Ian Thorpe won his second gold medal of the worlds, in the 200 freestyle (knocking off rival Pieter van den Hoogenband of Holland), Monday's two world-record performers, Welsh and Leisel Jones, suffered disappointment. Jones, who set the world record in the semifinals of the 100 breaststroke, took the bronze in the final, finishing behind Xuejuan Luo of China and Amanda Beard of Irvine.

Another Australian unwittingly helped the Americans. Former Australian national coach Don Talbot provided the bulletin-board material for Phelps when he recently suggested, among other things, to Australian newspapers that the youngster "has done nothing yet." Actually, the words ended up in Phelps' hands.

"Oh yeah, I printed it out and put it in Michael's mailbox," said his coach, Bob Bowman. "It was the first thing I did. He said, 'I am so motivated to train right now, I cannot tell you how much.' And then he got in and swam really well."

Considering the swimmers are competing in the home of bullfighting, Talbot might as well have waved a red cape in front of Phelps.

"When he said that, that put a lot of fire in my butt and that really got me more motivated than I already was," Phelps said. "Having that in mind is going to get me through these championships pretty well."

Here's how well: He led the field by half a second at the 100. Tom Malchow, no slouch himself, had the second-fastest qualifying time in 1:55.90.

"I wish I could have had a better seat to watch it," said Malchow, from Ann Arbor, Mich. "It was very impressive. I'm happy with my swim, but I really got my doors blown off in that last 50."

Said Phelps, who holds the world record in two other events: "It didn't feel as hard as the other ones felt. I'm not going to say it felt easy, but I definitely felt good out there and very pleased with how I swam. I hadn't had a best time in that event in two years and that was pretty much the main goal."

Before Phelps' world record, it had been a night for Dave Salo swimmers, past and present. Salo, the longtime head of the Novas, once coached Beard, works with Aaron Peirsol when he's not at the University of Texas and started coaching Hayley Peirsol in the last six months.

Beard had been so focused on racing against Jones that she neglected to closely monitor Luo in Lane 3. But she was thrilled to have had another personal best (1:07.42).

"I had my eyes on Leisel, I wish I would have known," Beard said. "I don't know if it would have made a difference. [Luo] swam really studly. I keep getting confident with each race and I'm swimming faster. I don't think you've seen the end of me."

For the Peirsols, it was a night to savor. Hayley swam first and Aaron watched her from the stands with the U.S. contingent. After she raced, he went over to the warm-down pool to congratulate his younger sister.

"It took everything off of me. My race was basically over when she went like she did," he said.

"I was so happy for her, I almost shed a tear for her. I probably would have if there weren't a bunch of guys around me."

He had to temper his excitement in the stands.

"I think if I wasn't swimming, I'd be jumping around," he said. "I probably saw the girl in Lane 5 pushing her the last 400 or 500 and I was just trying to egg Haley on from as much I could from the stands."

Said Hayley: "This is definitely like one of the coolest things that has happened."

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