IRVINE — To thousands wedged into the stands at the USA Swimming National Championships on Saturday, it may have appeared that the men's 200-meter backstroke final went, surprisingly, down to the wire.
But according to three-time Olympic gold medalist Aaron Peirsol, who held off strong challenges by Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte to win his 11th national title in his hometown, the race at Irvine High was over before it started.
Peirsol, a Newport Harbor High product and the reigning world and Olympic champion in both the 200 and 100 backstroke events, said his success was assured just moments before, when younger sister Hayley Peirsol won the women's 800 freestyle final.
"My night was pretty much done after [Hayley's victory], to tell you the truth," Aaron Peirsol said of the inspiration he drew from his sister's first career triumph at the USA nationals. "She's coming around and it's pretty awesome to watch. She took a lot off my back. I mean I felt like I'd won, even though I hadn't swam yet. Her doing so well seriously inspired me. I figured if she can do it, I can do it, I guess."
Do it he did, though not without some rare drama.
"I'm not used to having [to battle] two guys in that race, whether it's in practice, or whatever," said Aaron Peirsol, who has not lost in the 200 back since collecting a silver medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
"That was foreign to me in many respects, but it was good. It has been a while since I had that level [of competition]. We didn't go nearly as fast as we thought we would. I think that shows we were all out for one thing only, which was to win. You try and break world records on your own time and you try to win races like that any way you can."
Aaron Peirsol led throughout, finishing in 1 minute, 56.36 seconds, the fifth-fastest time in history. He owns the world record (1:54.66)
But Phelps, who won six gold medals, eight overall, at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, and rarely swims the event, was within a half-body length or less for all 200 meters. Phelps finished in 1:57.09.
And, in the other lane adjacent to Peirsol, Lochte, a silver medalist in the 200 individual medley at the Sydney Games, helped bracket the famously laid-back 23-year-old with some rare competition.
"Both of those guys kind of pounded me in that race," said Aaron Peirsol, who called it one of the most entertaining races he has ever had. "I had them on both sides and I was just trying to push those guys back. I only have two hands, you know. [Phelps] is just a different caliber of athlete. I knew I was going to get a great race and I got a great race."
Aaron Peirsol, however, said he believed he was in good shape the entire race.
"No one else in the past five years has been within a second of me in that race," he said. "Was I worried? No. I had them in good position. To stay ahead of them to that last wall felt good."
Hayley Peirsol, who as a junior at Auburn last season won the NCAA 1,650 free to help the Tigers claim the women's national championship, said it was a different feeling that followed one of her watershed career moments.
"I was just anxious to get it over with," the former Newport Harbor standout said. "And when I finished, it was more like relief than anything else."
Hayley Peirsol finished in 8:26.45, topping Kate Ziegler, the 2005 world champion in the event, who was second in 8:32.72.
Hayley Peirsol was third after the first 100 and second nearly all of the next 350 meters, before taking the lead at the 500 mark. She led by .23 seconds after 600, then made a move to widen the lead with 150 meters remaining.
"I was like 'It's now or never,' " Hayley Peirsol said of her successful attempt to decrease the chances of Ziegler chasing her down. "[Ziegler, who outdueled Peirsol to win the 400 free earlier in the meet, with Peirsol taking third] is a tough cookie," Hayley Peirsol said. "I was thinking, if I die, I die. But it was fun. That's what I live for is racing."
Haley Peirsol said losing to Ziegler in the 400 free motivated her for the 800.
"That fired me up," said Hayley Peirsol, who spoke with her brother earlier Saturday, hoping he could settle her nerves.
"I told him I was nervous and he said 'I bet you are,' " she said. "I told him, 'That's not something you say to someone who tells you they are nervous.' "
Aaron Peirsol said he was only kidding with his sister and that he always has her best interests at heart.
"I'm very happy for my sister," Aaron Peirsol said. "I wanted her to make the team [the squad representing the USA at the Pan Pacific Championships, Aug. 17-21 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada] and she did."
Aaron Peirsol said when Hayley performs well, it usually relaxes him.
"The last time it was like this was when she won a silver at the 2003 world championships," Aaron Peirsol said. "It really inspired me and I won the 100 back that night. It probably won't happen every meet, but it's cool for it to happen once in a while."