At the 2003 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona, Aaron Peirsol was not thinking about his upcoming 100m backstroke final. The coaches in the ready room were telling him to focus on his own race but he wouldn’t listen. He was too busy watching his younger sister Hayley swim her way to her first silver medal at an international competition in the 1500m freestyle.
Any pre-race butterflies he was feeling were gone once Hayley touched the wall. After watching her inspiring performance, he said he felt no pressure going into his race, which he won and nearly broke a world record in.
“Her swim helped me learn how caring for someone else’s aspirations could be more powerful than focusing on your own,” Aaron Peirsol recalled. “I had my own swims those nights, did well, and barely remember them. But I remember hers.”
Both are retired from the sport now, but the Peirsols each left unforgettable marks on the swimming world. Aaron, 32, is a three-time Olympian with seven Olympic medals and 36 medals in major international waters. He still holds the American and World record-holder in both the 100 and 200 backstroke as well as the 4×100 medley relay. He will be inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame later this fall.
Hayley, 30, was once fourth in the world in the 1500m freestyle, joining Janet Evans and Kate Ziegler as the only women at that time to have gone under 16 minutes in the event. She then switched gears and turned into a professional triathlete, earning rookie of the year honors in 2009 from USA Triathlon.
Even though the pair are no longer actively competing, they both remain close to the water. Aaron lives in Newport Beach and is an Ambassador for the Surfrider Foundation, which works to increase awareness of beach and coastal environmental issues and Oceana, an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the oceans. Hayley is currently in Costa Rica and plans to teach abroad after recently graduating as a Waldorf teacher.
I had the honor to represent USA Swimming with the Peirsols on numerous national team trips and have watched them race all over the world. Beyond their legendary performances, I have always been inspired and enchanted by the Peirsols’ humility and down to earth nature. Their witty insight has charmed everyone who encounters them. Their accomplishments and approach to high pressure competition always made me want to know more about their mental approach.
Last week, I chatted with Aaron and Hayley as well as some of their former coaches and mentors to find out the secrets to their success.
“Growing up, we were very competitive, she would always want to race me to this or that,” Aaron recalled. “She was my little brother who was a sister.”
Born and raised just two years apart in Orange County, Calif., the pair seemed to share common traits since since they were little kids.
“Hayley was a girl version of Aaron” their mother Wella Harting says. “There was no question they were free spirits.”
From a young age, the two shared the same sense of worldly curiosity, often questioning their purpose far beyond the depths of the pool. That’s not the only thing they shared, as Hayley, inspired by her older brother’s example, used to steal his speedos and wear them to the beach when she was a little girl. It used to infuriate him.
The first time I met a Peirsol was when I watched Aaron make his first Olympic team at the 2000 Trials in Indianapolis. It was my first Olympic Trials and I felt out of my league surrounded with such talent. I remember sitting in the stands with my teammates as he walked up to the blocks for his race. He was relaxed and seemingly carefree with a confidence far beyond his years as he swam his way to his first Olympic team in the 100 backstroke. The following year, we spent a recruiting trip together at the University of Arizona over a Halloween weekend.
And this was the only time I ever heard someone quote a favorite John Steinbeck quote while dressed as Tweedle Dee.
“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless,” he recited, while wearing an oversized bowtie and miniature cap. “We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
These opposing elements are the embodiment of the Peirsol siblings, diving into philosophical discussions sprinkled with humor. I got to see this in Hayley when we competed on the 2005 World University Games together in Izmir, Turkey. We bonded in the Munich airport during an epic flight delay eating giant Toblerone chocolate bars and rapidly bouncing off the walls from the sugar and the excitement of our upcoming competition. We continued to be loyal roommates at the 2006 Pan Pacific Games in Canada and at the 2007 World Championships Team in Australia. Years later, we lived together in Berkeley and spent our time painting and writing children’s book ideas.
During this time, the Peirsol siblings were dominating the sport. Three years after the Barcelona meet, where they became the only sibling duo to medal at the same World Championships, they continued the tradition by both winning national titles on the same day at the U.S. National Championships.
Hayley, who won the 800 free that day, reveals she was “always more nervous for him than I was for myself because it was out of my control. I felt sad for him when he lost and proud when he won. I remember at big meets watching him on the big screen while I was warming up for my races and being inspired.”
The Peirsols didn’t just inspire each other.
“Hayley was not just an athlete, she was always beyond the sport,” recalled USA Swimming National Team consultant Jon Urbanchek, who coached Hayley in her prime.
USA Swimming National Team Consultant Jack Roach describes Aaron as possessing an “ancient wisdom” and admires his ability to live in the moment and live on his own schedule. Aaron is notoriously late for everything, as he is known for missing flights and being the last swimmer in the ready room before a major race. One time Aaron and I were driving to a pool in Berkeley over the holidays and he was driving seven miles per hour. When I asked him why he was driving so slow, he responded with “we are in no rush,” which I found hilarious and seriously irritating. His slow ride pace is the ying to the yang of his legacy he left in the pool.
Roach describes a memorable scene at the 2009 World Championships in Rome.
“The sun was setting over the outdoor natatorium with fig trees all around,” Roach recalls. “No one was in the pool except for Aaron. We were doing pace for his upcoming 200 backstroke final, the stadium was full and the light was just beautiful. Aaron gets out of the pool and pulls up two chairs and asks me to sit with him. His final was coming up and most swimmers would be anxious to get their racing suits on, but not him. We sat down together to look at the sun setting over the crowded pool with the buzz and anticipation of the racing to come. Aaron says to me ‘Look at this, this is incredible.’ He broke the world record twenty minutes later, which still stands today.’”
Hayley who once remarked, “Whatever happens, happens” minutes before she won a National Championship feels like this detachment served both of them well.
“Aaron was always extremely humble when it came to his accomplishments,” she said. “He never spoke of swimming or competing outside of the pool. The sport did not define him as a human being or determine his self worth. I have always admired his quiet determination a kind of quiet tenacity. He is extremely composed, laid back, even in the most stressful of situations. He has never been one to put too much pressure on himself or the outcome and so I believe, because of that virtue, he has been able to accomplish as much as he has.”
The Peirsols have a house down in Costa Rica where they often go to surf, swim, and gain inspiration from nature.
“I remember when we took a trip to Costa Rica together seven years ago, we were both fresh out of college. We were out late on a piece of land. It was completely desolate with no lights and there were more stars in the sky than I had even imagined there could be,” Hayley said. “It was unbelievable. We just sat there and talked. From that point on I think we understood each other on a different level. He is full of insight as well as all ears when you have something to say. I believe that’s a gift, to be able to contribute but also, to just be silent and listen.”
Excelle Sports associate editor Kim Vandenberg is an Olympic bronze medalist, Pan American gold medalist, World Championship silver medalist and three-time U.S. national champion and French national champion in swimming. She’s also a member of Excelle’s Athletes Council.