Peirsol goes for gold

IRVINE — Aaron Peirsol sat in a room that is used by ballerinas and gymnasts. With a straight face, the 6-foot-4 swimmer tried his best to answer questions Monday.

He found ways to dance around a couple of them.

Peirsol is one of the captains on the U.S. men's team at the Pan Pacific Championships, which start Wednesday at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center in Irvine. He is supposed to lead the Americans and be vocal.

The Newport Harbor High graduate has already made sure some of the younger members of the team show off their personality.

Even in swimming, there is hazing.

Peirsol said he helped the U.S. men's and women's teams produce skits, two days before the five-day meet begins. As for embarrassing highlights that included other swimmers, Peirsol stayed quiet.

For good reason, he said.

"Probably nothing appropriate enough to put in the paper," said Peirsol, who confirmed no one received a Tim Tebow-type haircut on Sunday. "We have some funny people on our team.

"Someone tried to imitate me and did a very good job."

Peirsol is hoping no one can duplicate his success in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke events. The "Backstroke King" wants his crown back.

For the second time this month, Peirsol returns to his backyard pool, where he swam with the Irvine Novaquatics as a kid. He no longer is the young gun.

The 27-year-old finished second in both the 100 and 200 backstroke events at the USA Swimming National Championships earlier this month. Two silvers earned Peirsol shots to race the same events for the U.S. team at the Pan Pacific finals.

Falling short of defending his national titles was not that big of a deal. He convinced himself of that after being upset by David Plummer in the 100 backstroke, his first finals loss at a national-level event since 2000, and then losing to Ryan Lochte in the 200 backstroke.

Now, Peirsol is hoping his attitude rubs off on the youngsters on the team.

"We're trying to get them mentally focused and mentally ready and to know the nationals was just a warm up," Peirsol said. "It's going to be tough, especially since we have to go fast in the morning and afternoon."

The pace feels right to Peirsol, who won the gold in the 100 and 200 backstroke events at the Pac Pacific finals in 2006.

The five-time Olympic gold medalist is in his hometown, and not too far away from his favorite U.S. city, Newport Beach. The beach is a place Peirsol has visited since being back in town.

Peirsol said he has called Austin, Texas, home for the last eight years. He cannot surf in Austin, so whenever he is near Newport Beach, he tries to ride waves.

He accidently revealed his favorite surfing spot, before quickly taking it back.

"I don't know if I want you to put that down, actually," Peirsol said because his location might get overcrowded and he does not want any stalkers.

Peirsol already has to watch his back in the pool. Swimmers are creeping up on him.

Two of them are fellow Americans.

Plummer came from behind to dethrone Peirsol in the 100 backstroke. He finished in 53.60 seconds, ahead of Peirsol's 53.63, to claim his first national title.

The 200 backstroke in which Lochte swam away from the rest of the field after the first 50 meters and won in 1 minute, 55.58 seconds, Peirsol referred to it as "fun." Five of the top six backstrokers of all time competed: Peirsol, Lochte, Tyler Clary, Nick Thoman and a guy named Michael Phelps.

All those swimmers are back. Peirsol will still face Lochte in the 200, but in this format, the two are racing for their country. They want the Americans to dominate the meet, which features swimmers from Australia, Canada, Japan, Brazil, China, South Africa and 14 other non-European countries.

A Japanese journalist brought up two of Peirsol's competitors, Ryosuke Irie and Junya Koga. Peirsol did not quite understand the journalist's questions, but responded nonetheless about the two Japanese standouts.

"I can tell you I taught Junya everything he knows," Peirsol said with a smile. "Junya, I remember he came to Texas to train with my [Longhorn Aquatics] team for a few months. He was a little kid. He was going very good then. It's amazing to see him improve upon so much.

"Irie has probably the most beautiful stroke I think in swimming right now. They will both be probably two of the tough guys to beat."

Irie holds this year's fastest time (1:55.52) in the world in the 200 backstroke.

The time cannot touch Peirsol's word-record mark of 1:51.92, which he set last year at the world championships in Italy. Peirsol is also the world record holder in the 100 backstroke at 51.94.

Whether Peirsol can regain his form, fans will find out Wednesday and Friday, the days he competes in the 100 and 200 backstroke, respectively. The final session for each event starts at 6 p.m.

Peirsol's family and friends will attend, just as they did at nationals. Being in town, Peirsol said, has helped him catch up with loved ones.

It's time for Peirsol to reacquaint himself with first again.

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