Growing up in Newport Beach as a surfer, swimmer, and water polo player, Aaron Peirsol was certainly no stranger to the water. And while swimming pools never bothered him (he owns three Olympic gold medals and two world records), what he saw at some Southern California beaches left him a bit queasy.
“I remember going to Belmont Pool (in Long Beach) for swimming competitions, and it’s one of the nicest pools in the state,” says Peirsol, now 24 and training for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “But the beach outside was polluted — brown water, garbage — and I thought there was something wrong with that. I thought that someday I might be in a position to make a change.”
On Saturday, Peirsol was in Long Beach as part of the Green Port Festival to accept a check of $10,000 from Toyota, whose “Engines of Change” program supports athletes who are working locally to make positive changes globally.
About a year ago, Peirsol signed on with Oceana, the largest international organization solely dedicated to cleaning up the world’s oceans.
Due in part to efforts of athletes such as Peirsol, changes are being made.
Ships in the Port of Long Beach are now using electric power while at dock, thereby decreasing harmful emissions caused by the burning of diesel fuel.
Oceana’s conservation advocacy has helped reduce the dumping of hazardous chemicals — such as petroleum and mercury — into the ocean.
Peirsol’s own Race to Save the Oceans Foundation ( www.racefortheoceans.org) calls on sponsors to donate small amounts of money for every mile he swims prior to the 2008 Olympics.
“Anything helps,” says Peirsol. “We’re not looking for anything huge. Just enough to show that people understand.”
Considering how hard Peirsol trains, a small donation could lead to something big for his foundation. Peirsol swims about 6,000 meters (or roughly two miles) per day.
He’s in the pool at least twice a day — an hour in the morning and two hours in the evening — in addition to his weight training.
“The goal is to stay lean.”
Peirsol is in his last semester at the University of Texas, where he is majoring in Government.
“Finishing school will give me more time to devote to my training,” says Peirsol. “And for things like Oceana.”
Peirsol is the son of a surfer, and his father’s perspective on the negative effect pollution has had on Southern California beaches inspired him to take action.
“I had a firsthand observation of the state of our ocean ... how it’s changed over the years,” Peirsol said. “My dad used to tell me how it was in the ‘60s. I had this perspective of how it’s changed over the past 46 years, and it can’t go on. I thought that someday I might be in a position to make a change. Swimming kind of enabled me to step up and have a voice.”
Peirsol appeared in his first Olympics at age 17 (Sydney, 2000). He owns a world-record time in the 100-meter backstroke of 52.98.
He owns another world record as part of the United States’ 4x100 medley relay team. Beijing 2008 will be his third Olympic Games, and he will be competing in three events: the 200 back, the 100 back, and the 4x100-meter medley.
Despite world records in the 100 and the 4x100 medley, Peirsol cites the 200 back as his strongest event.
“Now I’m a little older, a little stronger,” he says. “And I can do this for a while because I’m actually still young (24).”
Peirsol plans to continue swimming competitively (he may even be around for the 2012 Games) and working to raise environmental awareness. He’d like to schedule more fundraising events in Southern California, and possibly Austin, in the near future.