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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

Peirsol's High -Water Mark Is Talk of the Town

April 05, 2002|Eric Sondheimer

Jay Leno hasn't called. Neither has David Letterman.

If only they knew what they were missing for not booking teenage swimming sensation Aaron Peirsol, America's newest world-record holder.

He's 18, tall and fit, humble and witty. And what a story he could tell on the greeting he received when he returned to Newport Harbor High last week after setting a world record (1 minute 55.15 seconds) in the 200-meter backstroke at the Phillips 66 spring nationals in Minneapolis on March 20.

Friends hugged him, teachers hailed him and the school parking police nailed him.

"They gave me two tickets in two days," he said. "How ridiculous is that?"

Peirsol isn't complaining too loudly. He doesn't want to be treated any differently than his fellow students even though he won a silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Games and is spending his spring break competing this week at the World Championships in Moscow. He finished second Thursday in the 100 backstroke (51.71) to Australia's Matt Welsh (51.26).

"I've had my share of assemblies when I came back from Sydney," he said. "I like coming back and not making a huge deal like a parade."

Except Peirsol's world record puts him in rare company. Even rarer is for an athlete to become the best in the world as a high school senior.

"It is pretty cool," he said.

Back home in Irvine, his parents are still adjusting to Peirsol's extraordinary achievement.

"It's very strange," his stepfather, Tim Hartig, said. "What do you do for a kid who comes home like that? It's hard to relate. He's such a humble kid and good kid. Our house has always been low key, not get too high or too low. But everybody goes around the house with a grin on their face."

Peirsol is 6 feet 4, 180 pounds. He finished second to Lenny Krayzelburg in the 200 backstroke in Sydney and had been gearing up to make a run at the world record. It was Krayzelburg's record of 1:55.87 that Peirsol broke in Minneapolis.

"It's been building up to this," he said. "It wasn't a complete shock."

He has risen to the top of his sport but still enjoys walking around his neighborhood without being mobbed by autograph seekers.

"I like the fact I'm not a basketball player or football player and get pulled over in the street," he said. "I think I know where I'm at. I'm still a young punk. I'm not a veteran of the sport.... I'm enjoying the ride and soaking everything up."

He has signed to swim for the University of Texas next season and still competes for Newport Harbor's swim team when he's not traveling. Representing his high school and swimming with his friends is something he wouldn't give up.

"It does humble me," he said. "It reminds me why we're in sports. They get in there to have fun."

Now, if only the Newport Harbor parking enforcement people could be a little more courteous. Peirsol keeps getting punished for parking in the senior lot without a pass.

"It's the same bitter policeman every time," he said. "I'm a senior. There's a million spots in the back and no one's parking there."

Boy, would Leno have a field day talking to Peirsol.

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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