Olympian Aaron Peirsol’s Love Affair With Water

“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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