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Olympian Aaron Peirsol’s Love Affair With Water

By November 15, 2015January 19th, 20247 Comments

“Basically you have a love affair with that task and you find yourself in it: it’s meditation. And that’s what water, ever since I was a kid, was for me…it was always a matter of trying to see how deep my relationship could be with the water.”

Aaron Peirsol

If you follow competitive swimming, Aaron Peirsol needs no introduction.

The commonly spun narrative goes something like this: the greatest backstroker in swimming history, Aaron Peirsol is a giant among men. The very definition of a high performing elite athlete with a slew of world-records and Olympic gold medals to prove it.

But Aaron is not his career. Aaron Peirsol is different.

Let’s set the stage. Aaron burst onto the international swimming scene at the age of 17, walking away from the 2000 Sydney Olympics with a silver medal in the 200m backstroke. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Aaron won gold in both the 100m and 200m backstroke (that one by an incredible 2.5 secs) and a third gold leading off the 4×100 medley relay. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Aaron took gold in the 100m backstroke and the 4×100 medley relay, taking silver in the 200m back behind teammate Ryan Lochte.

The following year, Aaron raised the bar one last time with a stunning 1:51.93 world record setting performance in the 200m backstroke at the World Championships in Rome — a world record that to this day still stands – an astonishing 6 years later.

7 Olympic medals. 5 gold, 2 silver. 10 long-course World Championships.

Aaron is of course incredibly proud of his accomplishments. But victories, defeats, podiums and bling fail to tell the story of Aaron Peirsol. They are not who he is.

Over the course of his career, I vividly recall watching Aaron on television — one triumph after another. But far more interesting than his performances was how he acquitted himself outside the pool. There is just something completely unique about this guy. He is unlike any other high performing athlete I know.

More contemplative. Consistently thoughtful. A bit soft spoken. And always laid back.

More soul surfer than Type-A competitor.

How does a guy so chill thrive in such a pressure cooker universe? Not just through 1 Olympiad but 3?

Today I get answers. Today we enter the world of elite competitive swimming. A consideration of his career and the elements required to not just win, but keep winning. But most of the conversation centers around character — what makes Aaron tick.

His perspective might surprise you. Because for Aaron, it’s not about competition – it never was.

For him, it’s about a lifelong love affair with water.

For him, it’s always been a spiritual journey.

Specifics covered today include:

  • the world of elite competitive swimming
  • the importance of coaching & mentorship
  • Aaron’s preparation for the 2004 Olympics
  • acceptance & surrender in the wake of his Olympic DQ
  • Aaron’s love affair with water
  • Aaron’s spiritual vs. competitive nature
  • career sustainability & passion
  • the fallacy of ‘use it or lose it’
  • the perils of overtraining
  • characteristics of fellow Olympians
  • retirement motivations
  • environmental interests
  • what it means to own your journey

What is the core motivation behind your passion?

I’d love to hear all about it in the comments section below.

Aaron is a special guy. It was an honor to spend time with him. I think you will feel the same. I sincerely hope you enjoy the exchange.

Peace + Plants,


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Aaron doesn’t have a website. He’s not on facebook and rarely uses twitter. He doesn’t even have any swimming photos he could share with me for the episode. Like I said, he’s different. And that’s just one part of what makes him awesome.

Background, Context & Reference:

Notable People Discussed in today’s podcast:

  • Jack Roach: Director of USA Swimming National Junior Team
  • Michael Phelps: American competition swimmer and most decorated Olympian of all time
  • Garrett Weber-Gale: American competition swimmer and two-time Olympic gold medalist
  • Rebecca Soni: American competition swimmer and six-time Olympic medalist
  • Dave Salo: USC swimming coach
  • Markus Rogan: Austrian swimmer and three-time Olympic medalist
  • Conrad Anker: American rock climber, mountaineer & author
  • Roger Fededer: Swiss professional tennis player
  • Ryan Lochte: American competitive swimmer and eleven-time Olympic medalist
  • Gary Hall, Jr: American competition swimmer and ten-time Olympic medalist
  • Matt Biondi: American former competition swimmer and eleven-time Olympic medalist
  • Fran Crippen: American open-water swimming champion
  • John Moffet: American Olympic swimmer
  • David Berkoff: American Olympic swimmer known for his powerful underwater start.
  • Katie Ledecky: American competition swimmer and current world record-holder in several events
  • Siri Lindley: American triathlete coach and former professional triathlete

Related Podcasts You Might Enjoy:

Production, music & sound design by Tyler Piatt. Additional production by Chris Swan. Graphic art by Shawn Patterson.

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  • Laura Blankenship says:

    I am a recovered MS patient. if that wasn’t enough I became a homeless single mother 20 years later. Now I’ve built a quarter of a million dollar company. ..but that’s still not who I am. I’m an independent business owner who has a passion for inspiring at risk women. Soon to be benefit Corporation, we build programs that serve the women who work for our housekeeping and natural cleaning product company. I’m happiest when someone says, “Your story made a difference to me”. <3

  • Nenet says:

    Hi I haven’t listened to the podcast but I can’t wait to. For myself my running is my escape and passion. Often running 3-4 hours a day for the love and to satisfy my tonic. I’ve ran a 2.35 marathon, but now my running is gentle and long, I no longer compete and my intensity comes from the terrain and my mood.
    If I feel like running hard I do, if I float away I do. No gadgets, garmins or heart rates, my 43 year old legs dictate what happens.
    I wish I could run harder and faster like I used to, but I can’t. I’ve accepted that, but now I can do something much nicer that comes with age and experience. I can run longer and slower, I’m no longer in a rush to get somewhere, and sometimes if my legs would allow I would run all day. But I can’t, it’s self indulgent , but I do dream.
    And after all these years, I love to run, it makes me feel young, cheeky and alive. Can your passion grow with the years. Mine do. Thank you rich roll, be like Peter Pan forever young

  • Tommy F says:

    Lap swimming is a practice, which can embody the essence of surrendered meditation. Unaggressively flowing at a steady and mindful pace, incorporating chakra meditation while yielding to that black line beneath. This practice opens up greater connection to the divine.. therefore being meditative.

    Really like the ‘athlete-burnout’ question Rich, you posed to Aaron to end the podcast. In training, we often are required to push ourselves. Often this stems from trying to satisfy our ego. When we instead surrender to our chosen discipline, and act as a co-pilot of the divine within us, a sense of ease forms and we can begin to flow our practice and align with something much greater than posting a PR on Facebook. Don’t get me wrong, PR’s are great!.. but like Aaron points out, if we arrive at our destination of victory, without that softened sense of mindfulness, we will miss catching the real prize we’ve worked so hard to achieve.


  • JasonRH says:

    Such a good point Tommy. A real good book on this exact topic that I read years ago is Zendurance. Anytime my ego gets too involved in anything I am pursuing – athletic, creative, etc. – and I allow it to steer the wheel, I ultimately end up burning out and losing interest in whatever that activity is. Or, even if I do achieve what I set out to, so often my mind is so beat up by the time I get there that I don’t even care anymore. It’s only very recently that I’ve realized the distinction that you point out.

    I haven’t listened to this episode yet but I am real excited given the comments.

  • Tommy F says:

    Sounds like a great book Jason. I’m going to need to check it out.


  • Jennifer Charpentier says:

    Rich, thanks for introducing Aaron in this podcast. I was captivated by his story of the loss of his Olympic gold medal, the personal awareness he received during that period of time before the medal was restored and his life-altering perspective on that award and himself after it was returned to him. Powerful. Encourages me to remember that hardships and failures are a part of life but they don’t define me when my self worth and passion are centered in the spiritual and not the temporal. I’ve learned much about myself and the world from my failures and “mistakes” as well as from the experiences of others. Thank you for an interesting, thoughtful interview. As for your question, “What is the core motivation behind your passion?” For most of my life I have been afraid of being passionate about anything, for fear of failure and even at times for fear of success! Now, in sobriety and by defining my value through my growing dependence and relationship with God, I am motivated by whatever quickens spiritual awareness within my heart. I’ve felt this quickening on the cadence of a run, in the sunlight of a dusty trail, in the way cool water sluices over my shoulder in the swim, in the laughter and silliness of dinner preparations with my daughter, watching my son perfect a trick on his skateboard, in the gentle eyes of my dog and the deep hug of a trusted friend. I even occasionally hear it in a Rich Roll podcast. 🙂

  • Caiti says:


    At the beginning of this episode you discuss the recent violence in Paris and Beirut and you share a quote from someone relating to travel and compassion. I was hoping I’d find it in the show notes, could you share that? Thanks!

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