Austrian swimmer Marcus Rogan got quite an education during his four years in Washington, showing up to his freshman year at Mount Vernon High knowing virtually no English and leaving four years later to attend Stanford on a swimming scholarship. Rogan recalled being excited to see his name in The Post as a freshman -- "Rogan crosses the Atlantic to propel Mount Vernon," the 1997 story said -- but there was also significant confusion.
"I had to ask my coach," Rogan said Friday night, "what 'propel' meant."
Now, he can tell you for sure: It is what American Aaron Peirsol does better than anyone else in the world in the backstroke. Rogan had much more success figuring out the intricacies of the English language than he has had in recent years solving the problems presented by Peirsol, who hasn't lost a 200-meter backstroke race in five years, and whose resume is moving quickly from impressive to legendary.
At the 2005 swimming world championships at Jean-Drapeau Park on Friday, Peirsol not only won his second gold medal of the meet and third straight world title in the 200 backstroke, he also knocked .08 seconds off his world record, touching the wall in 1 minute 54.66 seconds.
That left yet another second place for Rogan, who also finished just behind Peirsol in that event and the 100 back -- in which Peirsol also holds the world record -- at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. Rogan swam the fastest 200 back of his life by more than a half a second Friday, but he still finished 1.97 seconds behind Peirsol.
"In swimming," Rogan said, "that's like a mile and a half."
Holding his hands about a foot apart, Rogan, 23, added: "His feet are about that big. That's all I see the whole race. . . . I have to admit it's frustrating to chase him because I don't feel like I'm making that much progress."
Peirsol, 21, has become an expert at schooling his rivals without giving up his secrets. He said he hasn't struggled for motivation despite his dominance because he knows frustration can be fuel for those who can't beat him, and he senses that younger athletes -- such as American Ryan Lochte, who claimed the bronze tonight in 1:57.00 -- are ready to pounce should he slide.
Fellow U.S. swimmers Michael Phelps, who Friday night earned his fourth gold medal here by leading off the victorious men's 800 free relay team; Klete Keller, who anchored that effort; and Natalie Coughlin, who claimed a silver in the 100 freestyle Friday; have all said this week their intensity and training have slipped since the Olympics.
That's not been the case with Peirsol, who is coached by Eddie Reese at the University of Texas, where he rooms with fellow Longhorn Brendan Hansen -- a growing legend himself in the breaststroke. Hansen, like Peirsol, wanted to break his own world record Friday night, but he had to settle for merely his second gold of the meet in the 200 breast with his finish in 2:09.85.
"I don't think the Olympics are any reason to start thinking it's time to take off," Peirsol said. "Certainly your mind needs a break . . . but you can only sit down so long remembering what you've done."
Those who know Peirsol, who will have a chance for a third gold in the 400 medley relay this weekend, say his persona in the pool contrasts with his relaxed demeanor outside of it. He all but shrugged his shoulders during a strange dispute after his Olympic 200 final last year, when a lane judge ruled Peirsol should be disqualified for an illegal maneuver. (The judge's ruling was later discounted.) Peirsol, who was born in Irvine, Calif., grew up at the beach and counts surfing as among his passions, so much so that he is an ambassador for the Surfrider Foundation, an organization dedicated to increasing awareness of the beach and environmental issues.
Even so, the nearly always laid-back Peirsol seemed sucked in by the magnitude of his achievement Friday night.
"As time goes on, you seem to realize that every race you win, two more guys are trying to bring you down," said Peirsol, who last lost in the 200 at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, when he earned the silver medal. "All of those 14- and 15-year old kids who are looking up to you are saying, 'I want to beat that guy.'
"When you are at the top, you are trying to fend everybody else off, and you only have two hands."
And, of course, the two feet Rogan is sick of staring at.
Rogan, though, took consolation Friday from the fact he was able to rebound from his disappointing seventh place in the 100 backstroke earlier this week. That performance, Rogan said, left him feeling great pressure to get a medal in the 200.
Rogan moved with his family to Washington in the summer of 1996 after his father, who works for a German television station, was transferred to the District.
"In Washington, I first got to realize the passion and evaluation the world puts on swimming," Rogan said. "I used to think it was fun just trying to race my friends, but in Washington I got to understand the culture behind the sport."
Rogan, who now resides in Vienna and has represented Austria at two Olympics, said he returns to Washington occasionally and particularly enjoys dinners at Sequoia restaurant in Georgetown. And, even far removed from a challenging slate of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Mount Vernon, he still finds the United States has its challenges -- namely, Peirsol.
Peirsol made it clear Friday he's not planning to make Rogan's life easier anytime soon.
"I'm starting to feel pretty possessive about it," Peirsol said about the 200. "I feel I have a pretty good grip on it in the sense that I know how to swim it whether I'm feeling good, bad or anywhere in between.
"Especially as you get older, to [set a world record] even when you don't feel that great, it means a lot."
Note: The U.S. 4x200 freestyle relay team -- Phelps, Lochte, Peter Vanderkaay and Keller, precisely the same quartet that stunned the Australian team last summer -- set an American record (7:06.58) Friday while claiming the first U.S. world title in the event in 23 years. Unlike in Athens, when Australian Ian Thorpe nearly caught Keller over the last 200, the Americans had no trouble securing this gold, topping second-place Canada by 3.15 seconds and the Thorpe-less Australians by 4.01 seconds.
"We had an American record," said Phelps, who also posted the second-best time of the night in the semifinals of the 100 butterfly (52.02) behind fellow American Ian Crocker (51.08). "That's the one thing we were really pleased with. We wanted to see how close we could get to getting the world record [7:04.66, set in 2001 by Australia] tonight, but for the four of us, in a post-Olympic year, we're pretty happy with that."
Though the United States was on world-record pace through 600 meters thanks in large part to Phelps's blazing opening leg (1:45.51), Keller said he had no expectation that he could finish off a historic effort, admitting that he hasn't trained full-out this summer.
"I don't know if I really deserved the anchor position because I just got in shape for this meet," said Keller, who hit the wall in 1:46.33. "I was a little nervous. I didn't expect the Canadians to be so close to us."