Peirsol's progress to gold

Steve Virgen

There have been moments when it seemed a different story would be

written about Aaron Perisol.

There were sleepless nights this past spring when he would vomit

from mononucleosis, seemingly losing pounds by the minute.

There were mornings throughout his life when he could have slept

in, rather than go back to the pool and swim. Swim, swim and swim.

At times in his life, Peirsol has been at a crossroads. Because

his path has been geared toward gold in the Olympics, choices have

been made, sacrifices, too, all of it leading up to the summer of

2004.

Aaron Peirsol's time has come. A new story is developing.

The former Newport Harbor High star swimmer will be in the U.S.

Olympic trials as the favorite in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke

Wednesday through July 14 in the newly built Charter All-Digital

Aquatic Centre in Long Beach. He is expected to be on the U.S.

Olympic team in both events, as well as the 400 medley relay,

competing in Athens, Greece in August.

Peirsol, 20, who recently finished his sophomore year at the

University of Texas, has signed a lucrative contract with Nike,

forfeiting his final two years of NCAA eligibility. He said he is

ready and wants to win three gold medals in Athens. The world record

holder in the 200 back said he has been strengthened by the support

of his community, family and friends.

The people Peirsol has learned from have made him into the man he

is today. While swimming is such an individualistic sport, Peirsol is

aware he would not get to the pinnacle of his profession without the

help of others. Still, he has had moments when he fought battles on

his own ... even as a child.

A new father

Peirsol doesn't like to speak about the time his family was made

up of his mother, Wella, and his younger sister, Hayley, who is also

competing in the Olympic trials. But it's a key factor that has

played into his maturation. Peirsol's father, Scott, did not play

much of a role in Peirsol's childhood.

When Peirsol was 6, he, his mother and sister, left their home in

Florida, retreating from their past and starting anew in Orange

County.

"It's safe to say that I don't have a relationship with my

biological father," Peirsol said. "The last time I spoke with him was

five months ago. I really don't like to talk about that."

Peirsol's mother said Scott tried to establish a relationship with

his son this year for the first time in a long time.

"To see his father show up again, I think, that was a painful

experience," Wella said. "It has been hard. I think he has put

[Scott] more as a friend."

For most of his childhood, Aaron Peirsol has known Tim Hartig as

his father.

When Wella arrived in Orange County with her two children 14 years

ago, she took them to the YMCA in Costa Mesa, where Aaron and Hayley

first started to swim. It was also where Wella met her future

husband, Hartig, who had two children of his own and eventually

became known as, "dad," to Wella's children, as well.

"Aaron and Hayley accepted me right away," Hartig said. "They are

both great kids. When I came together with them, I knew they just

wanted to be loved. Now, Aaron and I are almost buddies, but we have

more of a father-son relationship. We bodysurf together. I've always

respected his space. I just tried to be the best dad I could be to

him."

When Aaron Peirsol speaks of role models in his life, he talks

first about his mother and Hartig.

"Ever since we moved in with him, I loved him like he's my dad,"

Aaron Peirsol said. "He's the man. He's my dad."

Hartig and his two children, Erin, and Greg, blended well with

Wella, Haley and Aaron Peirsol. They quickly became a family and the

children easily became friends, Hartig said.

"We were like the Brady Bunch," Hartig said. "It was wild."

Hartig has been there for Aaron Peirsol, while he was growing up

and taking on the pressure that came with competing in the 2000

Olympics at age 17. For the past four years, Peirsol has matured into

the best, and Hartig has enjoyed watching him grow.

"It's amazing," Hartig said. "He has become more and more of a

man. It's just wild when your kids grow up. Mentally, he has grown.

He has more confidence. Now he revels in the competition. For him,

it's kind of a mental maturation. He has dealt with all the stress,

too."

Peirsol learned a great deal from his experience in the 2000

Olympics. He lurked in the shadow of Lenny Krayzelburg, but he

remained eager to break out and make a statement of his own.

"When Aaron talks about Lenny, he talks as if Lenny was his

mentor," Wella said. "But, really, Lenny was Aaron's competition.

Being in the Olympics at a young age, that was overwhelming for him.

He came in second in the 200 back and I think that's still biting at

him. But, now, he's seasoned. He's at the top of his sport."

When Peirsol came back from the Olympics with a silver medal in

the 200 back, he still had to finish high school. Then he was off to

Texas, on his own, competing for the Longhorns.

Fighting off illness

Peirsol downplays what he went through this past spring, but the

people close to him know how much mononucleosis affected him.

Peirsol had a plan to finish his sophomore year with another NCAA

200 back title, turn pro and prepare for the 2004 Olympics. The

illness came upon him and he never lost focus.

"His sickness was serious for about four weeks and he had to cut

back on his training," said Eddie Reese, the Texas coach who will

also be guiding the U.S. Olympic team this summer. "Will that hurt

him now? For 99% of swimmers, a sickness and a setback like that

would bother them. But it won't bother him. He doesn't let things

bother him."

Reese said Peirsol felt ill during a workout last week, but he did

not let it stop him from finishing the training session. Reese also

said Peirsol is ready for the Olympic trials, but he has yet to peak.

"He will swim real well at the trials," Reese said. "But I don't

believe those will be his fastest times this summer. I think he will

be very, very fast at the Olympics."

Peirsol has used his experience this past spring as motivation for

the rest of the year. He battled through nausea at the NCAA

championships March 27, but still came through to break his own

short-course world record. He won the 200 back in 1:50.64 in a

25-meter pool. Olympic competition uses a 50-meter pool, known as

long course.

In March of 2002, Peirsol set the long-course world record of

1:55.15, which he will attempt to break in the 2004 Games.

Making a splash

When Peirsol began swimming, he was eager to become a freestyler,

said Brian Pajer, a coach with the Irvine Novaquatics when Peirsol

was 9. Pajer asked Peirsol to try other strokes. When Peirsol

performed the backstroke, Pajer noticed something special.

"He was comfortable and really coordinated for a guy that age,"

said Pajer, who is the head coach of the UC Irvine swim teams. "He

had a very natural feel for it. At his very first meet, he broke the

Southern California record in the 100-yard backstroke for

10-year-olds. We had been working with him for only two months."

Peirsol continued to break records. When he turned 13, Dave Salo,

the Novaquatics head coach, began to talk about the Olympics with

him. Salo told Peirsol he could make the Olympics and did his best to

feed the confidence of the young swimmer.

"I felt comfortable projecting that," Salo said. "You can't do

that with every swimmer. But he's special. What has made him

different is that he has accepted the challenge of being the world

record holder in the backstroke. He's different than most people.

He's a confident, young man. He's not necessarily cocky. People tend

to think he's some sort of surfer dude, because he's from Newport

Beach, but I don't think that's him. He's just casual. And he has a

lot of confidence."

Peirsol displayed his confidence throughout the 2000 Games and it

has continued to build. In 2000, he became the youngest swimmer to go

under two minutes in the 200 back. Truth be told, the then-teen-aged

Peirsol motivated Krayzelburg in Australia.

"Absolutely, he pushed me," said Krayzelburg, who is now training

with Salo and will be competing in the Olympic trials. "Of course I

was aware of him. He was dropping seconds every time he went in the

water. He is tremendously special. In 2000, there was no question, he

was out there to win. He was no kid."

Finding motivation

Peirsol has emerged from the shadow of Krayzelburg and wants to

remain the king of the backstroke. Along with that comes

endorsements, which will continue to grow if Peirsol wins one or more

medals at the 2004 Olympics.

This year, in addition to signing with Nike, Peirsol has appeared

on Good Morning America and Cold Pizza, the morning TV show on ESPN.

If he achieves his goal of winning three gold medals at the Olympics,

Nike will most likely feature Peirsol in his own commercial.

There could be more, especially if Michael Phelps chooses to

compete in the 200 back. Phelps is attempting to match Mark Spitz's

feat of winning seven gold medals. Phelps might take on the 200 back,

as he has come within .15 seconds of breaking Peirsol's world record.

Reese said Peirsol definitely would not shy away from Phelps in

the 200 back.

"Aaron loves to race," Reese said. "He doesn't care who it is."

Peirsol has been waiting for his Olympic moment. He wants to stand

on top of the podium while the U.S. national anthem plays. For now,

it starts with his performance in the Olympic trials.

"I might as well train as if [Phelps] is in the event," Peirsol

said. "If he does, he does. It's not really something I'm thinking

about. I'm training just as hard, no matter what."

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