There's Something In the Water

Aaron Peirsol, twice a backstroke gold medalist in Athens, set a new world mark at U.S. trials, but called it
Aaron Peirsol, twice a backstroke gold medalist in Athens, set a new world mark at U.S. trials, but called it "just a factor of the heat I was in." (By Donald Miralle -- Getty Images)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

OMAHA, July 1 -- Aaron Peirsol stood with water glistening off his heaving chest, still trying to replenish his lungs with the gift of oxygen so soon after removing himself from the pool, when a question came forth about his performance in the 100-meter backstroke at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. Peirsol won the event Tuesday night, setting a world record against as stout a field as he had ever faced.

"How much did it take out of me?" Peirsol said, repeating the question, aware he still has the 200 backstroke, and perhaps another world record, ahead. "I think it put a lot in me, back in me."

That is what is happening here some five weeks before the Beijing Games begin. American swimmers -- be they Peirsol and Natalie Coughlin, who each set world records in the 100 backstroke Tuesday, or Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, who made their own marks earlier in the week -- are setting new standards almost by the hour.

Take a sampling of opinions from Tuesday night, starting with Peirsol, the mellow Californian who trains in Texas.

"That's probably the best field I've ever been in," said Peirsol, who qualified for his third Games. "It's better than any Olympic field I've been in. . . . It's ridiculous."

Follow with Phelps, who missed out on another world mark in the 200 freestyle, but was all but bubbly about the prospects of a blistering four-man U.S. relay team for Beijing.

"That's by far the fastest 200 free field I've ever been in, including worlds, the Olympics, everything," Phelps said. "The potential, the excitement that we could have at the Olympic Games with our four fastest guys -- who knows what we could do?"

And who knows what will happen next here? The competition is fierce enough that Hayley McGregory, who joined Coughlin in breaking the previous women's 100 backstroke record in preliminary heats Monday, was nudged out of second place in the final, and a likely spot in the Olympics, by Margaret Hoelzer.

"That's the nature of our country's competitive depth," Peirsol said. "We reap what we sow."

It has come to the point that winning a race but not breaking the world mark -- as Phelps did in the 200 freestyle, which he won in 1 minute 44.10 seconds, .24 of a second off his record -- leaves the Qwest Center crowd with a decidedly disappointed shrug.

"In an Olympic year, there's a training consistency at a level that's never approached in the previous three years," said Eddie Reese, the U.S. men's coach who also coaches Peirsol at the University of Texas. "We had the best practices all year long in our pool that I've ever seen in my life or ever heard of. That's a first step."

Peirsol, the gold medal winner in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes at the 2004 Games in Athens, took the next step. Earlier in the day, Peirsol -- well aware other competitors and coaches noticed the stalwart might be vulnerable, given his sixth-place finish in the preliminary heats -- sought advice from sages in his past, Reese among them. His head was cluttered. They cleared it.

"The physical part is behind us," Peirsol said. "The hardest part is getting the mind right. . . . That's the thing that can kill anybody. You can be perfectly fit. If your mind's not right, it can eat you alive."

Ryan Lochte, who owns Peirsol's previous 200 record, swam to Peirsol's right. Randall Bal, who established the record pace midway, pushed from the left. And from the outside came Matt Grevers, pressing some more.

It is nearly impossible, though, to outrace Peirsol over the final 25 meters in the backstroke.

"He can finish a race," Phelps said, "better than anybody out there."

Added Reese: "He is one of the preeminent fighters in our sport."

He fought to a finish in 52.89 seconds, just ahead of Grevers. Finally came the fist-thrusting, celebrating his new record.

Phelps didn't have the same push-to-the-end finish to his event. With Lochte having opted out of the final earlier in the day -- hoping to challenge Peirsol in the backstroke -- Phelps crushed second-place Peter Vanderkaay by 1.75 seconds, touching in 1:44.10 in the only individual event he entered, but did not win, in Athens.

"We'll have a great race," he said, looking forward to Beijing.

Other developments Tuesday: Jessica Hardy of Long Beach, Calif., won the 100 breaststroke, an event in which three-time Olympian Amanda Beard failed to qualify. Towson's Hoff posted the fastest time in the semifinals of the 200 freestyle. Phelps returned to the pool to qualify for Wednesday's final of the 200 butterfly.

And with all that, mouths were left agape, waiting for the next day, and perhaps the next record.

"It's the U.S.," Peirsol said. "That's how we compete."

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