Back to reality, sort of, for Aaron Peirsol and family

Tony Altobelli

NEWPORT BEACH - After two years of training, four weeks of

pre-Olympic preparation and two weeks of Olympic exposure in Sydney,

Australia, one question still puzzles silver medalist Aaron Peirsol.

Why do people eat Vegemite?

"Dude, that stuff is nasty," the Newport Harbor High junior said. "And

people over there eat it like it's butter or something. They put it on

everything. I just don't get it."

For the 17-year-old, he'll stick with his chocolate-chip pancakes,

thank you very much.

"I finally got to have some when I got back home," he said. "It's been

weeks and weeks since I've had them. I feel much better now."

For those people who just moved into the area, Peirsol won the silver

medal at the Sydney Games in the 200-meter backstroke with a time of

1:57.35, just behind world champion Lenny Krayzelburg of the U.S.

(1:56.76) and just ahead of Matthew Walsh of Australia (1:57.59).

"It was a solid race for me," Peirsol said. "After the time trials and

the traveling and all that was going on, I wasn't in tip-top shape going

into the race. But overall, I was very happy with how things turned out."

Peirsol is home now after his Olympic adventure and despite the

non-stop phone calls and mountains of new USA clothing, it's the family's

goal to try to return to a somewhat normal life. Similar to what it was

when he was "just" a three-time CIF Southern Section Division I champion

for the Sailors.

"Nothing's changed," Peirsol said. "My family has been great at trying

to keep things as normal as possible. Now that I'm back home, with

home-cooked meals and I'm back in my old bed, everything is pretty much

the same."

Perhaps the same in terms of normal life, but has the Olympic

experience changed Peirsol?

"It's changed me, but it's hard to describe how it's changed me," he

said. "I think I've matured a little bit during all of this. I was away

from the family for over six weeks straight. I learned a little bit about

myself."

Being a member of the U.S. Olympic Team was a great thrill for

Peirsol, but it wasn't all fun and games.

"There were a ton of rules and regulations to follow," Peirsol said.

"There was a strict curfew before our meet and we even had a curfew after

our meet. I guess with a lot of younger athletes, they had to be strict."

Peirsol did get to go out and see some of the events, but for the most

part, kept to the business at hand before his competition.

"Before my event, I would practice for a while, then watch other

events on television as they were happening, which was pretty cool. After

my race, I went to some track and field events and did some city

sightseeing with my family."

During the Opening Ceremonies, Peirsol got to experience first-hand

one of the best openings any Olympics has ever seen. But even in all the

hoopla, he managed to strategically place himself in a camera-friendly

position among the horde of American participants.

"The swimmers made sure we were near the men's basketball players,"

Peirsol said with a laugh. "We also made sure we were in front of them so

we could see everything that was going on."

On the podium to receive his silver medal and hearing the National

Anthem played was not only a memorable moment, but also fuel for

motivation for the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece.

"It was great hearing our anthem played while I was up there with

Lenny, but I was thinking about how great it would be to win the gold and

have them play that anthem for me."

Which brings us back to the two-time gold-medal winner in Sydney.

Krayzelburg, 24, has announced his plans to compete at the Athens Games.

"I think that's a good thing, not only for me, but for swimming as a

whole," Peirsol said. "He's a heck of a swimmer and I think his best

times are still ahead of him. It'll be nice to have someone I can compete

with for the next four years."

It was only two years ago that the thought of Peirsol competing in

these Olympics was a possibility. Now just 1,400-plus days away from

Athens, 2004, the backstroke standout will have not only an extra two

years of intense training, but will also have Father Time in his corner

helping him grow and mature.

"There's a lot of stuff I'll be doing before the next Olympics, but

they'll get here before you know it," Peirsol said. "I'll talk to my

coaches and see if I'll be hitting more weights in addition to my

swimming as I get older, but right now, it will be pretty much the same

as I've been doing."

Peirsol will be honored at the Sailors' football homecoming pep rally

Oct. 18 at 9:30 a.m. as well as the homecoming game on Oct. 19."The whole

Olympic experience was great," Peirsol said. "My family and I got to

check out the Sydney Harbor and the Opera House and the Bridge. It was

something I definitely will never forget."

For Peirsol's dad, Tim, this entire Olympic experience is still just a

two-week blur that is slowing coming into proper focus.

"I don't think I've fully comprehended what we've just gone through,"

Tim said. "I'm sure with the parties and engagements that Aaron will be

attending, it will help us realize the magnitude of what he's done. We

should be more amazed, but we live with this kid, so we're around it all

the time."

Upon Aaron's return home on Friday, it's been a nonstop deluge of

phone calls.

"We've had to start screening calls just to keep control," Tim said.

"When Aaron got back, it got really crazy. I hope people understand that

we're not trying to be mean or anything. Mainly it's been well-wishers

and relatives congratulating Aaron. I'm sure it will eventually die down

and life will get back to normal."

Living with a host family just outside of Sydney, Aaron's family saw

some of the sights, but for the most part just tried to soak up the

Aussie area through relaxation.

"We're not the greatest sightseers by nature," Tim said. "We'd do some

running and swimming around the area. We got to see the Opera House and

the Sydney Harbor area, which was beautiful, especially at night."

Sometimes for Tim, lack of knowledge was a good thing, especially when

running.

"I'd be running through this bush area near our house and I'd get

lost," he said with a laugh. "Once I figured out how to get back, the

family I was with said, 'Do you realize that there are poisonous snakes

and spiders out where you were running?' That grabbed my attention."

One of the nice amenities that come with being a family member of an

Olympian came at the numerous AT&T; Centres located throughout Sydney.

"From noon to night, they would feed you as much as you wanted and

pretty much whatever you wanted," Tim said. "They had monster prawns on

the barbecue, if you wanted a latte, they would make one for you. We

pretty much lived there for the first few days."

The Peirsol clan did manage to capture some moments of their trip on

videotape. Just don't ask to see any still shots of the vacation.

"We thought we packed the camera, but we couldn't find it anywhere,"

Tim said. "Finally, when we got home, Wella found it at the bottom of one

of our bags. I did buy a disposable camera for the race, but we were so

far away I had to take shots of the Jumbotron screen. I'm sure those will

be just dots on the film."

Tim wanted to once again thank the many people that helped make this

trip possible.

"People like Michele Mullen, Claire Belden, Lauren Johnson and the

folks at the American Legion Hall, among others, have been just

wonderful," he said. "They have no idea how much we truly appreciate

everything everyone has done for us."

For Aaron's mom, Wella, the trip to Australia was way less stressful

than the trip to Indianapolis for the time trials.

"The Olympics was way easier," she said. "The time trials was like

delivering a baby. I think I held it together pretty well in Sydney."

Wella was especially proud of how well Aaron has handled everything

that has been going on the past two months.

"He's still the same kid," she said. "This morning, the most important

thing to him was his chocolate-chip pancakes and his 'Dragonball Z'

cartoons. During all of this, he had such a strong faith in himself, that

strong faith rubbed off on us."

So where does Aaron get such a strong belief in himself?

"He just loves what he does," she said. "He believes he's the best

backstroke standout in the world and he just hasn't put it all together

just yet."

A strong belief and confidence is overshadowed by his humility,

according to Wella.

"When he got off the plane at LAX with some of the other local

athletes, Aaron was the only one that didn't have his medal around his

neck," Wella said. "He's not in this for the medals. If you went into his

room, you wouldn't even know he was a swimmer. He's got dozens and dozens

of medals, but they're not out on display."

One big thing that Wella and the rest of the family was amazed with

was the amount of knowledge that the Australians had about Aaron.

"We were swimming at Sutherland Pool one morning and some little

Aussie kids saw Tim wearing one of Aaron's USA sweatshirts and they asked

if we were from the States," Wella said. "We said we were and they asked

us if we were here for the Olympics and we said yes. When they asked us

which sport we were following and we said swimming, they got all

big-eyed. They asked what event and we told the the 200 back. They said,

'You know the big-haired, surfer kid, Aaron Peirsol?' We're 10,000 miles

away from home and they knew everything about him. I don't know why they

think he's a surfer kid. Must be the hair."

For Aaron's sister, Hayley, seeing her brother reach such heights in

the swimming world has given her serious motivation for a trip to Greece

in four years.

"Seeing everything he's done has really gotten me motivated to make

the Olympic team in 2004," the Sailors' sophomore distance swimmer said.

"It was great to see Aaron do so well. I am very proud of him."

Hayley was the executive producer, director and film crew of the

family vacation footage, which helped to make up for the missing photo

camera.

"Tim did it the first day, but I did it the rest of the way," Hayley

said. "When Aaron was racing, I tried to get that on camera, but my hands

were shaking so much, it was hard to keep still. I had trouble figuring

out how to stop the camera, so there are shots of my shoes and the sky,

but overall, it's not bad."

But, like Aaron, the dream vacation is over and reality has set in. "I

have so much homework to do," she said, glumly. "I tried to do my Spanish

homework on the trip, but I still have the rest of it to do. I got off

the plane and I thought to myself, 'Oh no, back to reality,' "

It could be worse. Just ask Aaron.

"He's got twice as much as I do," Hayley said, happily.

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