Heading into Olympic Trials, Peirsol's only goal was to make the team. He did better than that, first winning the 100m back in one of the fastest fields in history and lowering his own world record to 52.89. The bigger test came in the 200m back, where he was facing world champion and world-record holder Ryan Lochte. The two were stroke for stroke at the finish, but Peirsol beat Lochte by .02 of a second and tied the world record, setting up another showdown in Beijing.
Peirsol was the heavy favorite in both backstroke races in Athens, owning both world records and having just set a new standard in the 200m backstroke at Olympic Trials. Michael Phelps finished second in that Trials race, and Peirsol's performance was enough to convince Phelps, who dropped the 200 back from his Olympic program. Peirsol went 3-for-3 in Athens, capturing gold in the 100m and 200m back, as well as the 4x100 medley relay, which set the world record that still stands.
Peirsol also was at the center of one of the most bizarre incidents in Athens, when he was initially disqualified after winning the 200. Peirsol was leaving the pool deck when the scoreboard changed to reflect the DQ, bumping Austrian Markus Rogan up to first. The French judge who made the call stated that Peirsol had made an illegal turn, but Peirsol and the U.S. coaches immediately appealed. The decision was shortly overturned, after officials said the disqualification was improperly filed, and Peirsol was reinstated as the gold medalist. Despite all the confusion, Peirsol said he remained relaxed. "I knew I didn't do anything wrong," he said.
Not a sprinter?
Even though Peirsol holds the world record in the 100m back, he doesn't consider himself a 100 swimmer. Peirsol and his coach, Eddie Reese, say his style is much better suited for the 200, since he lacks the early speed of sprinters. Peirsol believes if a backstroker comes along who can duplicate what Ian Crocker does in the 100m butterfly, his record will be gone and he would no longer dominate the event.
Peirsol made his Olympic debut as a 17-year-old in Sydney, winning a silver medal in the 200m backstroke behind friend and teammate Lenny Krayzelburg. Peirsol didn't finish second again in that race at an international meet until 2007, when another teammate, Ryan Lochte, took gold at the World Championships in March. Lochte also took down Peirsol's world record, placing Peirsol in the unusual position of chasing a rival. Just a few days earlier at Worlds, Peirsol won the 100 back and broke the world record as the first man ever to break 53 seconds. Lochte finished second.
Back to the sea
Growing up in Southern California, Peirsol learned to swim in the ocean. Most of his swimming is now done in the pool, but Peirsol's connection with the ocean led him to join with the environmental group Oceana to raise awareness about environmental threats. As part of the effort, he launched racefortheoceans.com, where fans can sponsor Peirsol as he trains for Beijing, pledging a donation for every mile he swims. (He swims about 100 miles every month in training.) Peirsol also frequently blogs on the site, about training, racing and supporting the cause.
Though Peirsol hails from Irvine, Calif., he has lived in Austin, Texas, since he enrolled at the University of Texas in 2002. He says leaving California, and longtime coach Dave Salo, was the hardest decision he ever had to make, but he enjoyed the college life and remains there even though he graduated in December 2007. Peirsol bought a house for himself in Austin, but he doesn't spend all his time there -- he also bought land in Costa Rica and built a house there.
Part of the gang Peirsol is one of several Olympians training in Austin. Every day, he swims alongside world-record holders Brendan Hansen (100m and 200m breaststroke) and Ian Crocker (100m butterfly) and they are coached by U.S. Olympic team coach Eddie Reese. All three attended Texas and have been together since before Athens -- where they were all on the podium, with Jason Lezak, after winning the 4x100m medley relay in world-record time.
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