Now that he's retired from competition, all of 27 years old, we can let you in on a little secret about Aaron Peirsol, the greatest backstroke swimmer the United States of America ever produced. It has always been one of the great joys of journalism to write about Aaron, winner of seven Olympic medals, five of them gold.
Win or lose, Aaron has always gracious, thoughtful, passionate. Any competition was better because Aaron was there, big or small. Especially small. That's when you really got a chance to talk to him -- and even in the weirdness of what's called the "mixed zone," where athletes and reporters mingle, the breadth and depth of his interests would inevitably surface, anything and everything from politics and current events to literature to his zeal for environmental protection.
Even at the biggest of the big meets he was a champ, and in the biggest sense of that word. At the world championships two years ago in Rome, when he didn't qualify for the finals of the 100-meter backstroke, a race he had essentially owned, he straight-up said it was his own fault. He didn't pout. He came back and won the 200 back, and broke his own world record.
Aaron formally announced his retirement earlier this year, and as they say, one door closes and another opens. Now the sport has on call one of the greatest ambassadors you could ever ask for. And the man is totally willing.
His message: swimming is more than just up and down, back and forth, in a pool, looking down at that black stripe.
Swimming is about water, and our planet is water, and water is life itself.
"If I could get each swimmer on the [U.S.] national team one thing," Aaron was saying the other day, "it would be a pair of body-surfing fins.
"Get out there and have fun. Don't lose perspective on why you do this."
Training for the Olympics can, let's face it, be a grind. But the fact is, that kind of training imbues dozens if not hundreds of hometown standouts with an enviable skill set. That's a simple message that Aaron is trying to get other elite swimmers to try to better understand.
Because if they can understand it -- it stands to reason that they can pass that message along.
This is, actually, the way it works. Aaron grew up looking up at the guys who seemed larger than life -- the guys who already knew how to handle the famed Wedge in Newport Beach, California, one of the world's most famous spots for surfing of all sorts. He started in the Junior Lifeguard program in Southern California. At 17, he and his buddies were big enough, good enough and one day confident enough to tackle the Wedge on their own.
Now he's the one with the message. Again, this is how it all works, and how it's supposed to work.
"It's so great to be able to understand that even when you're done with swimming in the pool you have the ability to experience something, to take it to another level -- to use this skill and ability to take it to a level that maybe few people can, to understand that you have a gift. It's just the tip of the iceberg for so many swimmers.
"So many guys on the national team are like, 'I'm never going in the ocean.' I'm like, 'You're joking.' That's why we do this -- so you can get thrown around and be active and explore a little bit with what you can do out there."
Just a couple examples:
This past weekend, in Florida, Aaron took part in an open-ocean race held in honor of Fran Crippen, the American swimmer who died in a race last October in Dubai.
In February, on the North Shore of Oahu, Aaron was among those who took part in the 2011 Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic. Sure, some of those there knew who he was. But the way to earn credibility in that crowd is to do what comes naturally to Aaron Peirsol -- to move with humility and to treat everyone and everything around you, and in particular the ocean, with respect.
"This competition was my first at Pipeline," he said. "I was hesitant because I hadn't gone out a week in advance and practiced, or anything like that. I had only gotten there the night before. I went out early that morning and I was just trying to be as humble as I could be.
"It was so much fun. The waves were such pretty waves. They were just as perfect as could be. You get in the wave and you pick a line and it just shoots you out. It was a good-sized day -- none of it was too big or too scary. Everyone was just having fun.
"For me it was felt so good. It felt like home in my own way. It was nice."
He said, "I would just love to see -- I would just love to have swimmers understand what they have."