Peirsol returns to roots

IRVINE — Aaron Peirsol stood out during his mid-afternoon swim at Irvine High on Monday.

Peirsol, in Orange County for this week's USA Swimming National Championships, splashed around as he has done so often in that pool over the years. The man some call the "backstroke king" worked on his backstroke, yet there was one thing that made the 2002 Newport Harbor High graduate pretty easy to spot.

Most of the swimmers in the pool had on their college swim caps. Peirsol's swim cap had the American flag on the side, with his last name under it in blue letters.

Peirsol, 27, has been there before. The world-record holder in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke and five-time Olympic gold medalist is still plenty fast and comes into these championships as a big favorite. He's the defending national champion in both events and he's expecting big things again.

"Physically I'm fit, I'm healthy," Peirsol said. "Mentally, I'm in a great place. It's great to be home. To get to have friends and family come out and watch, that's pretty cool. This is a sport where you can go around the world, and usually we do. To have it in my home pool, it's very cool, especially this late in my career."

It really is the home pool for Peirsol, who swam in it growing up for the Irvine Novaquatics club which is hosting the national championships this week. Peirsol swims in the 100 back Wednesday, the 100 butterfly Thursday and the 200 back Saturday. Preliminaries each day start at 9 a.m., with the event finals at 6 p.m.

Peirsol has had a stranglehold on the backstroke. He's had the world record in the 100 back for six straight years, minus a week last summer, and in the 200 back he first broke the record in 2002. Fellow American Ryan Lochte and Peirsol have gone back and forth in the 200 back before Peirsol shattered the record in 1 minute, 51.92 seconds at the FINA World Championships in Rome last summer. It broke the old mark by over a second.

Peirsol calls that one of the best races of his career. He said it overshadowed a tough 100 back race earlier in that world championships meet, when he miscalculated the time he'd need to advance out of the semifinals – and didn't.

He is one of the most unassuming top athletes you'll meet. When Peirsol shrugs off the 100 at last year's worlds, it's not really with swagger, but more of a matter-of-fact statement.

"I'm not sure I'm in the place in my career where I feel like I have anything to prove," Peirsol said. "I'm not sure that's why I swim anymore. I'm not going out there to prove anything to the guys next to me, or the people in the stands or anything. I'm in a place where I'm doing this because I want to do it, you know?

"As far as the 100 goes, I looked at it like it was an isolated innocent. I'm not even sure it was all that bad. I had to put it out of my head, because I had two more races, and the next race was one of the best of my career. That was absolutely wonderful."

Peirsol has shown he can bounce back. It's a quality that Jason Lezak, who went to Irvine High and also grew up in the Novaquatics program, can appreciate. Lezak is the one who anchored the winning U.S. 4x100 freestyle relay team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, chasing down Alain Bernard of France in a memorable ending.

Lezak is also now 34, and he said he can appreciate how training differs as a swimmer gets older. After all, Peirsol is the oldest among the top seeds in the backstroke events at these national championships. It was maybe easier back when Peirsol was battling the former world backstroke champion, Lenny Krayzelberg, for superiority in the early 2000s.

"He's kind of figuring things out," Lezak said of Peirsol. "He's getting older – I think he just had his 27th birthday – and I'm looking at that like, 'Wow, that's where I was back before 2004.' That seems like so long ago.

"As people are getting older, you have to learn your body. I think he's doing a good job understanding the differences, that he can't train like he did when he was 16. He makes those adjustments, and that's what it takes when you start getting older."

It's definitely true for Peirsol; he said it's been a tough season of training and he needs to make sure he gets enough rest. He's looking forward to some battles this week.

In the 200 back, he will likely have to face Lochte and perhaps another Olympic hero, Michael Phelps, who is seeded No. 12. In the 100 fly, Phelps, the world-record holder and 2008 Olympic gold medalist, is seeded first and Peirsol is third.

But Peirsol is also a good brother and he can draw inspiration from another source – his younger sister Hayley. Hayley Peirsol, 24, was once also a top swimmer for the Sailors before going to Auburn, but she eventually tired of competitive swimming. So she now is serious about triathlons.

Aaron's seen her in a few when she's come to where he lives in Austin, Texas, which he said is a big triathlon city. Both Peirsols want to make the 2012 Olympics in London, but only Aaron is still in swimming.

"It's something she's really good at," Aaron Peirsol said. "She can run like the dickens and she's really competitive, she's tough. I'm proud of how far she's come in such short of a time. Yeah, she really loves what she's doing, and for good reason. She's kicking butt."

This week, Peirsol would love everyone at Irvine High to say the same about him. And, as he glided through the water Monday with that USA cap firmly on his head, he looked to be on the precipice of yet another big meet.

"I feel comfortable here," he said. " I feel like I know this pool as good as anybody."

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