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
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
"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
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
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,
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
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
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."
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."