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ATHENS 2004

Peirsol Finally Has Look of a Winner

He earns gold in 100 backstroke, though he has to double-check to make sure. Coughlin wins the women's event.

August 17, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The first thing Aaron Peirsol saw through squinting eyes as he swiveled off the wall of the competition pool at the Olympic Aquatic Center on Monday night was his name atop the list of finishers in the men's 100-meter backstroke.

But Peirsol wasn't about to celebrate winning the gold medal, a victory matched Monday night by fellow American Natalie Coughlin in the women's 100-meter backstroke.

Peirsol had been through this before, at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Indianapolis in the 200 backstroke. He'd seen his name atop that list, or thought he had, and had begun celebrating only to discover to his deep chagrin that he had finished second.

So this time, Peirsol looked a second time.

And a third.

Yes; a gold medal it was, the first for the former Irvine resident, who attended Newport High before going to the University of Texas.

Peirsol won in 54.06 seconds, followed by Markus Rogan of Austria (54.35) and Tomomi Morita of Japan (54.36). Lenny Krayzelburg of the U.S. was fourth in 54.38.

"I did the best I could and took it home," Peirsol said. "It's just as matter of who gets his hand on the wall first."

When he emerged from the pool to face reporters, Peirsol was still dazed by the significance of the moment. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I'm still a little ferklempt."

But his head had cleared by the time he took part in the medal ceremony.

"It's so much more than you imagine," Peirsol said, "standing on the podium, singing the national anthem. It's more than anyone could have told me."

Peirsol's previous Olympic best was a silver in the 200 backstroke in 2000.

Krayzelburg, who lives in Studio City and attended USC, was hoping to recapture some of the glory of the 2000 Games when he won three golds. He is expected to compete in one more event in Athens, the 400 medley relay.

"I'm disappointed," said the 28-year-old Krayzelburg, who holds both the world (53.60) and Olympic (53.72) records in the 100 backstroke. "I don't know if I was ever in the comfort zone tonight."

Coughlin, who swims for California, hit the gold jackpot in her first appearance in an Olympic individual event. She reached the wall in 1:00.37, followed by Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe (1:00.50) and Laure Manaudou of France (1:00.88). Haley Cope of the U.S. was eighth at 1:01.76.

"It was 50-50 between relief and joy when I won," Coughlin said. "I knew I just had to keep my emotions in check and get to the wall, just keep thinking about the finish.

"I don't feel I have anything to prove now. Whatever happens, I'll always have my gold medal."

Luo Xuejuan of China won the women's 100 breaststroke in 1:06.64, followed by Brooke Hanson of Australia (1:07.15).

The race ended in disappointment for two U.S. swimmers. Amanda Beard was fourth in 1:07.44, Tara Kirk sixth in 1:07.59. It was also a disappointment for Leisel Jones of Australia. The world (1:06.37) and Olympic (1:06.78) record holder, she finished third Monday in 1:07.16.

Former USC swimmer Lindsay Benko failed to qualify for the women's 200 freestyle final, finishing a semifinal heat Monday in 2:00.22, leaving her eighth.

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