Seven-time Olympic medalist, Aaron Wells Peirsol, was often recognized as America’s backstroke specialist during his time in elite competition. He was born (July 23, 1983) and raised in Irvine, California. Both he and his sister, Hayley, would go on to be international competitors in the sport.
Early international appearances
While well known for his soft-spoken, laid-back personality, Peirsol’s focus and resolve has served him well in competition. Though he watched swimming live at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Peirsol didn’t rise to prominence until the following Olympic cycle. Training at Irvine Novaquatics under Dave Salo, Peirsol qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympics at the age of 16, cruising in to the coveted second place finish in the 200-meter backstroke behind legend Lenny Krayzelburg. Peirsol failed to qualify in the 100-meter back, but went on to earn silver in the 200, once again behind Krayzelburg. In Sydney, Peirsol roomed with another young hopeful, Michael Phelps.
The following year, Krayzelburg opted out of World Championships in order to attend the Maccabiah Games in Israel, leaving the backstroke titles wide-open for the taking. Peirsol, who turned 18 during the competition, went on to win the gold in the 200 back with a time second only to Krayzelburg’s world record from 1999. He finally smashed that record the following March at Spring National Championships in Minneapolis. Later in the year, in addition to another gold in the 200 back, Peirsol managed a win the 100-meter back at Pan Pacific Championships. There, he also combined with Phelps, Brendan Hansen, and Jason Lezak, to earn a world record in the 400-meter medley relay.
As the Olympic season approached, Peirsol continued to better his performance. He was recognized as 2003 NCAA Swimmer of the Year, having graduated high school and joined the renowned University of Texas Longhorns (he would later go pro, signing with Nike). In Barcelona at World Championships, he retained his reign over the 200 back and also won gold in the 100 back, missing Krayzelburg’s record by 0.01 seconds. His sprinter’s speed earned him a place on the 4×100 free relay team, which came in second to Australia. Peirsol also swam the backstroke leg of the 4×100 medley relay, launching the United States to another world record in the event.
2004 Olympic Games
Finally, Peirsol entered 2004 Olympic Trials looking to qualify in both backstroke events. In the 100-meter back, he qualified ahead of Krayzelburg (who had joined his training group earlier in the cycle), setting the pair up to go head-to-head in Athens. Peirsol bettered his world record in the 200 back, as well; Phelps qualified over a second behind him.
In Athens, Peirsol swept the backstroke events, as expected. However, he faced controversy and was nearly stripped of his medal after he was disqualified for an illegal flip-turn in the 200 back. But the decision was filed improperly and eventually overturned, allowing Peirsol to retain his title and hardware. He finished the meet with a world record in the 100 back while leading off the gold medal-winning 4×100 medley relay.
2005 and 2007 World Championships
In 2005, Peirsol once again beat his 100 back world record during trials for Montreal World Championships; he also qualified for the 200. In Montreal, the backstroke champion defended his titles, lowering his 200 back WR. Over the next two years, his reign went unhindered as he slivered millisecond by millisecond off his world records – in 2006, he held nine of the fastest times in the 200-meter back. He also graduated from University of Texas. At Pan Pacs that year, he went up against fellow Athens Olympian Ryan Lochte in the 100 back. Lochte would one day be recognized as one of his backstroke successors. However, that time was yet to come, and Peirsol broke 54 seconds – the only individual to do so at the meet.
Peirsol met the Florida Gator again in Melbourne at World Championships. He fought furiously to hold off Lochte and Brit, Liam Tancock, in the 100-meter back. While Peirsol managed to win the event, Lochte stole both the 200-meter backstroke title and world record later in the competition. Lochte’s victory was Peirsol’s first international loss in almost seven years.
2008 Olympic Games
Despite the presence of a new rival, Peirsol qualified first for the 2008 Olympics Games in both backstroke events, tying Lochte’s WR in the 200. In Beijing, he faced Tancock again in the 100-meter back, trailing behind him at the turn, but surging ahead in the last 25 meters to smash his own world record. In the 200 back, Lochte caught him. He also took the world record once again. Though it seemed that he had lost his crown in the 200, Peirsol topped off the meet with a shared world record in the 4×100 medley relay, leading Michael Phelps to one of his legendary eight gold medals in a single Olympics.
The next year at 2009 US Nationals, Peirsol was the first person to go under 52 seconds in the 100-meter back; he also broke Lochte’s WR in the 200 back. Days later, at World Championships in Rome, Peirsol failed to qualify for finals in the 100 back – a major misstep in the eyes of the media. However, he regained his 200 backstroke title, breaking the world record he made during trials by more than a second. Once again, he led off the 4×100 medley relay, and helped lower the world record set in Beijing.
The last international meet of his career, 2010 Pan Pacific Championships, was held in Irvine, at the pool he swam in during his age group days. Peirsol was originally unable to compete in the 100 back because only the top two competitors from each nation could participate in the final. However, Lochte withdrew from the event, passing his spot on to the backstroke veteran. Peirsol went on to win gold. While he did not qualify in the top two American spots in the 200 back, he joined the 4×100 medley relay for one last gold medal.
It took nearly six months for his retirement to become official. He was expected to join the United States team at Short Course World Championships in Dubai that December, and had spots on the roster for the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai. However, he withdrew his name from both meets, and, in February 2011, announced that he had retired. He was notably quoted as saying he left his swim gear in one of the lockers after Pan Pacs at Irvine, and never looked back.
Though he has been considering returning to the University of Texas for graduate school, Peirsol has certainly not left the world of swimming. He blogged about the London Olympic Games for the New York Times, and he participates in fundraising activities for a variety of charities, which occasionally requires a return to competitive swimming. At the end of 2013, he swam in Rio de Janeiro during the King & Queen Sea Challenge – a charity open swim for a foundation which runs one of Rio’s hospitals.
As an Arena Ambassador, Peirsol has helped organize a series of events allowing younger swimmers to compete in Grand Prix settings, and he was a regular spectator at the Grand Prix events in 2013 and 2014. He also sits on the 2013-17 FINA Athletes Committee, acting as a liaison between FINA and current aquatic athletes. He was present at 2014 Nationals at Irvine, the last pool he swam in professionally. The rest of the time, Peirsol resides in Newport Beach, CA. True to his roots, he works as a seasonal lifeguard.
Originally developed by Alexandra Ashworth.