When Aaron Peirsol climbed from the water Thursday night, bounding from the pool at the Olympic Aquatic Center to claim his second gold medal in four nights, he strode into a muddy, murky Olympic morass. Peirsol turned to look at the scoreboard, and his name plummeted from first to last in the 200-meter backstroke -- accompanied by the dreaded letters, "DQ," for disqualified. His initial reaction: "Wah?"
Chaos reigned, and Peirsol -- the California kid who oozes cool -- found himself at the center of controversy for the second time this week. Yet by the end of the evening, all was right, at least in American eyes. The U.S. swimming team had another historic night -- five medals, three of them gold -- and Peirsol himself had won gold, lost it, then gained it back.
"Tonight was weird, twisted, a little interesting," Peirsol said. "But it was okay. It came out all right."
For those swimmers other than Peirsol, it came out all right without the yo-yo of emotions. Amanda Beard -- eight years removed from her first Olympics, as a 14-year-old who toted a teddy bear around Atlanta -- won the first individual gold of her career by taking the 200-meter breaststroke, "my baby," as she said.
Michael Phelps continued his electrifying meet with his fourth gold medal, and sixth medal overall, surging to victory in the 200 individual medley, where he beat out fellow American Ryan Lochte, who surprisingly took silver. Natalie Coughlin won a hard-earned bronze, trailing only world record holder Jodie Henry of Australia and 2000 gold medalist Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands in the 100 freestyle.
"We had a great, great night," U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese said.
By the end, though, it looked like Peirsol -- albeit with gold still around his neck -- had spent much of the evening in a blender. Initially, controversy seemed to be the furthest thing from his race. He simply destroyed the field, finishing in an Olympic-record time of 1 minute 54.95 seconds, an astonishing 2.4 seconds ahead of silver medalist Markus Rogan of Austria, Peirsol's good friend. Romania's Razvan Florea was third, with James Goddard of Britain fourth.
Yet as Peirsol celebrated and began walking behind the stands, the "DQ" went up on the scoreboard. Initially, his eyes widened. He raised his hands, then let them fall to his sides, exasperated. As he headed back to consult with U.S. coaches, he said, "Sounds pretty bogus to me," but said he wanted to learn more.
Yet the chatter poolside was that this was no coincidence. When Japan's Kosuke Kitajima beat American Brendan Hansen in the 100-meter breaststroke early in the meet, Peirsol accused Kitajima of "cheating" by using an illegal "dolphin kick" in the race. Peirsol hasn't backed away.
"He's my best friend," Peirsol said of Hansen Thursday night.
Yet the implication, in those moments when he seemed to have fallen from golden to goner, was that the judge in Peirsol's lane had exacted revenge. The violation came at the final turn, with 50 meters go. In the backstroke turn, swimmers are allowed to rotate onto their stomachs and complete their stroke into the wall as long as they don't kick while doing so. The turn must be made in one smooth motion. The judge called a violation of this rule.
Peirsol hasn't lost a 200-meter backstroke race since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, when he won silver. He said he can't remember being disqualified in the race. Reese, in fact, said, "It's hard to do something wrong in the backstroke."
With that kind of backdrop, the conspiracy theories were hard to hold back. FINA, swimming's governing body, wouldn't reveal the nationality of the judge who made the call. Peirsol maintained he didn't toggle between emotions once he was disqualified.
"Honestly, I wasn't worried," he said. "I knew I didn't do anything wrong. I knew it would be overturned. "
That process, however, was as discombobulating as the original disqualification. As the U.S. team prepared to file an official protest, FINA officials -- determined to make a ruling before the medal ceremony, just 30 minutes after the conclusion of the race -- consulted the judge in question.
The judge's description of the violation wasn't written in either of the official FINA languages, English or French, and the governing body initially issued a statement that the disqualification wasn't allowed on those grounds. Peirsol was reinstated. Later, FINA officials said the judge had also failed to show there was a technical reason for the disqualification. Videotape was not used.
Austria and Britain protested Peirsol's reinstatement. But FINA's Jury of Appeal unanimously rejected the protest, and when "The Star-Spangled Banner" began playing, Peirsol was atop the medal stand, gold around his neck.
The emotions of the evening, though, affected nearly everyone in the race, Rogan not the least. "It's a new question to be asked what it feels like to be an Olympic champion for 20 minutes," said Rogan, who graduated from and was an All-Met at Mount Vernon High. "I don't know if it reached my heart, but it reached my mind. But there's no doubt Aaron's a better backstroker than me. . . . I'm glad friendship prevailed over politics."
By contrast, Beard's victory was simple -- only in that it was determined solely in the pool. She trailed Australia's Leisel Jones by nearly a second headed into the final 50 meters, yet overcame her, winning in an Olympic record time of 2:23.37. Jones won silver, Germany's Anne Poleska bronze.
Gone are the days when that teddy bear, Herman, accompanies Beard to the medal stand. In 1996, she won two individual silvers and a relay gold, then a bronze in 2000. She already had a silver in the 200 IM here. But this was different, and her words -- "I can't wipe this smile off my face" -- were spot on.
"It's been a long journey," Beard said. "It's been a fun journey. It's been ups and downs. But I'm very excited, very proud for where I am right now."
Beard, 22, has known Peirsol, 20, since the two were little, growing up in Irvine, Calif., and they have remained good friends. She said she has never seen him angry. By the end of a wild Thursday at the Olympics, he wasn't. He pointed no fingers. He said he didn't feel singled out by the judges.
And when he finally left the Aquatic Center, he had another gold -- and a story to tell.
"This is turning into one hell of a drama," Peirsol said. "It's just too weird."