Peirsol renews passion in triathlon

Water is a symbol for cleansing, for renewal. In Hayley Peirsol’s life, she knows this much is true.

Somehow, even after a burnout from swimming, water remains prevalent for Peirsol. She has a new dream that involves the 2012 Olympics in London.

In the literal sense, it’s not just about getting wet for the Newport Harbor High product. Distance running, cycling, pushing her body to the limit also factor in now, as Peirsol competes in triathlon.

This is her life now, to be the ultimate athlete. To run, swim and pedal a bike to her newfound glory, to a finish line that does not have a wall.

Peirsol finds that in her new sport, as she continues to learn more about it. She’ll compete in just her third race, when she takes part in the Los Angeles Triathlon Sunday.

“I just figured I would try this out,” Peirsol said. “In the past two months, I’ve become more passionate about it, more than I ever had been about swimming.”

In the past, not so long ago, she set a goal to reach the Beijing Games and compete with her older brother, Aaron, the backstroke king who won two gold medals and a silver. Hayley Peirsol found her niche in distance freestyle events. At one point, she was No. 4 in the world in the 1,500-meter free. She was fourth in the nation in the 800 free and had a viable chance to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. The top two in the U.S. qualified for the 2008 Olympics and leading up to Beijing, Peirsol was motivated to make it.

But something took place while on course to reach the Games that could be described as unexpected by most. Yet for Peirsol, it was inevitable. Working as a distance swimmer can be a lonely deal, as these types log more mileage than others and tend to train in solitude.

“My heart just wasn’t in it,” Peirsol said. “In order to do what I wanted to do, it just wasn’t there. To do the event that I was going to do, I was coming in and doing 10 to 11 practices a week. In order to be the top two in the U.S. you have to absolutely love what you’re doing. You’re either 100% or you can’t do it.”

Peirsol had also been recovering from a tragic incident. She dealt with post traumatic stress, effects coming from a break-in that involved a stalker who tracked Peirsol and her roommates.

Peirsol, who is 23, contends that incident did not have anything to do with her retirement from swimming. Still it was a life-changing experience that caused her to rebuild her life in the sense that she had to fight against fear.

That happened in the summer of 2006. She still found success in 2007, helping Auburn defend its NCAA title in women’s swimming. But then came the summer of 2007 and her retirement from the sport she had competed in for most of her life.

That actually became a happy time for Peirsol. She was able to wake up whenever she wanted to, eat the foods she couldn’t eat before and she also didn’t need to follow any type of schedule. She traveled to Honduras, and while at Auburn actually lived the college life.

At peace with her herself, she then found triathlon. Or maybe it was the other way around.

“I just know that I was meant to be an athlete,” said Peirsol, who is attending her final semester at Auburn. “I don’t want to be in swimming. But I just love being an athlete. I missed racing and being competitive and even working out.”

In just her second triathlon, Peirsol won the Bandits Challenge, finishing in 2 hours, 34 minutes, 5 seconds in Wilkesboro, N.C. Aug. 9. It was a 1.1-mile swim, 28-mile bike leg and 6.2-mile run. Even before the race, she had a goal to reach the London Olympics. Now, the dream has only intensified.

“She has never attacked anything like she did this,” said Peirsol’s mother, Wella. “She has a goal that she’s going to London. I’ve thought, ‘Oh my god. We are going to do this again.’ ”

After winning the triathlon last month, Peirsol called her mother, who was in Beijing. It was nearly 1 a.m. in China when Peirsol called, but after the two spoke they could not sleep because the dream already started to become a reality.

Just like word began to spread that Aaron Peirsol’s little sister had retired from swimming, now the buzz is all about her success in triathlon.

“She was born for [triathlon], definitely,” said Jon Urbanchek, who coached Peirsol in swimming. “She has all the skills for that. I could see that when she was swimming … She kind of lost her zest to do swimming. I knew she needed something more exciting.”

Now that Peirsol has found it, she doesn’t want to quit. She wants to reach the Olympics, this time in triathlon.