Coming all the way back

IRVINE — Aaron Peirsol was night and day on the first day of the Pan Pacific Championships.

He went from being out of contention in the 100-meter backstroke to winning it. What a crazy nine hours for the former Newport Harbor High star.

The home-field advantage did not help Peirsol qualify out of Wednesday morning's heat to the finale, but his U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte did. Lochte opted out of the 100 backstroke to focus on other events, opening the door for Peirsol to be the second American in the evening's race.

The hometown swimmer got his chance to thank Lochte in a big way. The first person Peirsol mentioned after getting out of the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center was Lochte.

Peirsol defended his 100-backstroke title at the Pan Pacific finals after finishing strong in 53.31 seconds, breaking the meet's previous record of 53.32 set by Peirsol four years ago.

As the rest of the seven other swimmers looked for their times, Peirsol dunked his head in the water three times. Maybe he thought he was dreaming and was trying to wake himself up.

Nope, Peirsol finished ahead of Japan's Junya Koga (53.63) and Australia's Ashley Delaney (53.67), who took the silver and bronze, respectively.

The "Backstroke King" is back on top and it felt good, even if though Peirsol said it was weird to hear an echo during the interview in front of a crowd filled with family and friends.

"I wanted to make most of that opportunity," said Peirsol, who was the third fastest American during the heats in the morning, eliminating him from the final's eight-man field because only the top two swimmers from each country get to advance to the finale.

Peirsol turned it around in his second chance. He went from posting the fourth-fasted time under the sun to the fastest under the lights and has now qualified for next summer's FINA World Championships.

Someone asked Peirsol what he planned to give Lochte for deciding to scratch his name from the final race after finishing with the second best mark in the preliminaries.

"I'll just get him a beer," Peirsol said. "When the meet's over."

The 27-year-old Peirsol has a couple of more races in him at the Pan Pacific finals. Peirsol said Lochte did not pull out of the 100 backstroke for him, but he certainly appreciated the move.

Peirsol has a chance to sweep the backstroke events at the Pan Pacific finals as he did in 2006. The 200 backstroke is set for Friday, with the heats starting at 10 a.m. and the finals at 6 p.m. Lochte is slated to be in the 200 backstroke.

Everything seemed in place for Peirsol to feel at home. The Pan Pacific finals are in his backyard pool, where he grew up swimming with the Irvine Novaquatics.

Peirsol owns the world record in both the 100 and 200 backstroke events. Everything seemed in his favor.

Competing outdoors is what Peirsol prefers. Competing in front of loved ones at this stage of the five-time Olympic gold medalist's career is what he calls poetic.

There was no rhyme or reason how Peirsol almost failed to reach the 100 backstroke final. The way he advanced, Peirsol got lucky.

The same two swimmers who beat Peirsol earlier this month at the USA National Championships finished ahead of Peirsol again at the same venue. This time, it almost kept Peirsol out of the night's main event. David Plummer and Lochte locked up the Americans' two berths into the finale during the morning heats.

Lochte said he was just racing for fun while he turned in a 53.69, and there was no way he was swimming the 100 backstroke again at night. He concentrated on the 200 freestyle, which he won going away in 1 minute, 45.30 seconds.

Afterward, Lochte said he felt pretty good because he did not have to compete in the 100 backstroke, which was coming up soon. Peirsol is glad Lochte had the 200 freestyle and other events like the 200 and 400 individual medleys to worry about.

"It's hard to make the finals in that way because I didn't necessarily earn it earn it," said Peirsol, who swam a 53.85 in the prelims.

"The morning was a bit of a wake up for me. Unfortunately, I did have a bad start. I was playing catch up the entire way."

Peirsol kept up with the field at night.

On the turn, it was Plummer taking the lead. Plummer upset Peirsol in the same event at nationals, but Peirsol wasn't about to let Plummer beat him again in a final.

He wanted to be in the lane next to Plummer and Japan's Ryosuke Irie, two of the favorites. Down the stretch, no one finishes like Peirsol. Fans witnessed Peirsol close the deal and Irie take fourth (53.71) and Plummer fifth (53.80).

Someone asked Peirsol if he is now over a mental block in the 100 backstroke.

"I'm not sure if it's that so much as no one would leave me alone in that race," said Peirsol, who plans to be on the Americans' 4x100-medley relay team on Saturday. "The world is just getting very fast. For me, it's by no means a mental block. I still love this race."

Winning the 100 backstroke only helps Peirsol love it even more.

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