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Coming Up For Air

Olympians Peirsol, Sandeno Slip Back Into High School Comfort Zone


The teasing chant rose from the stands where the Newport Harbor swim team sat: "Peirsol, Peirsol, Peirsol." Then came the announcement over the P.A. system: "Aaron Peirsol, please report to the coaches' table."

After a few minutes of animated discussion with Newport Harbor Coach Brian Kreutzkamp, the Olympic silver medalist returned to the stands to explain.

"I missed my race," he said with a sheepish grin. "I forgot the order."

While the lapse meant he couldn't compete the rest of the day, and put his team uncomfortably close to losing the meet, Peirsol said the slip-up illustrates the "no pressure, no stress" environment that he's been craving after the Sydney Olympics and the recent U.S. Spring Nationals.

At his side sat friend and Olympic bronze medalist Kaitlin Sandeno, who agreed that high school swimming is a welcome relief after a year that included nonstop vigorous training and success in front of a world-wide audience.

"I needed this," said Peirsol, who attended last Tuesday's meet--which Newport Harbor won--after a nearly two-week absence from the pool. "It frees me. Swimming like I usually do is a business, but this is a reminder of what I'm swimming for. I just want to keep experiencing what I think it's really about."

No pressure, no stress. Just light-hearted banter and good times with teammates and friends.

"This is all about fun," said Sandeno, a senior at El Toro, which lost to Newport Harbor. "I'm not in great shape right now and some days I'm better than others; it just depends on how I'm feeling. I usually swim to my competition, but here it doesn't really matter how well I do."

Both had mild cases of burnout after returning from their month-long stay in Australia. Peirsol won his medal on Sept. 21, in the 200-meter backstroke, and Sandeno won hers on Sept. 22 in the 800 freestyle. Last month, they spent a week in Texas at the U.S. Spring Nationals, where Peirsol won titles in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, and Sandeno won the 400 individual medley and 200 butterfly and finished second in the 400 and 800 freestyles.

Last week's high school meet was a necessary diversion.

High school swimming has little to do with winning or swimming his fastest times, Peirsol says. He doesn't have to be in shape, he doesn't have to taper or shave, he just swims. And he usually wins. Hanging out and socializing with "normal" teens is what attracts him to such meets. Sometimes, he says, he can't wait to finish the race and get out of the pool to talk to someone.

"This is a breath of fresh air," he said. "I don't think earning money or being the fastest should be the main focus of why you swim."

Peirsol and Sandeno are lucky to have teammates and coaches who understand. If they need a day off, they take it, with no hard feelings from the rest of the team. That may have something to do with this simple fact: Although neither has been training specifically for league events or the Southern Section finals, both are expected to set national high school records.

Peirsol is expected to challenge the 100-yard backstroke record of 47.50, set by Derya Buyukuncu of Woodbridge in 1994. Sandeno is looking to break Janet Evans' 500 freestyle record set of 4:37.30 in 1988, as well as the 200 individual medley record (1:58.84) set by Natalie Coughlin of Concord Carondelet in 1998, and the 100 butterfly mark (52.41) held by Misty Hyman of Shadow Mountain, Ariz. Hyman set an Olympic record on her gold-medal swim in the 200 butterfly at the Sydney Games.

"I want to see what I can do at the [section] finals," Sandeno said. "I would really like to leave my name in the high school record books."

Peirsol, a junior, isn't worried about records.

"I'm not really going to prepare for the finals," he said. "I'm just going in like it's a normal high school meet. It's just for fun."

Once the Southern Section finals are complete, it will be time for Peirsol and Sandeno to get back to business.

Both will compete for the United States in the FINA World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, in July. And, of course, both have the possibility of the 2004 Athens Games and the pursuit of gold medals ahead of them.

In the meantime, there are final exams and proms, and for Sandeno graduation and picking a college.

"I want to do the high school thing right now. I love going dancing and shopping with my friends," she said. "The next Olympics seem such a long ways away."

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