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Peirsol returns to roots

Former Newport Harbor High star entered in three events at nationals in Irvine, where he trained as a club swimmer.

August 02, 2010|By Matt Szabo, matthew.szabo@latimes.com
(Scott Smeltzer…)

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."

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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.

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