I first saw Aaron Peirsol from across a 50 meter pool deck. I was a timid and gangly 16 year old, competing in my first US Nationals swimming competition. He was 18, breaking world records at the same pool and shattering all conceptions of what the human body could accomplish in the 100 meter and 200 meter backstrokes. It never occurred to me that we might be college teammates one day, or even friends. He was barely mortal to me; how could a human being move through the water so fast and make it look so effortless?
At the University of Texas, Aaron was one of the “Big Three” in swimming. Aaron conquered the world in the backstroke events, setting new standards of speed seemingly each time he hit the water. Ian Crocker owned the sprint butterfly, while Brendan Hansen owned the breastrokes. The three of them won individual world titles as well as relay titles together. To an outsider, they were legends. To anyone that shared their locker room, they were three nice guys who happened to swim really fast. The sheen of a legend tends to wear off when the person is seen up close.
Of the “Big Three”, Aaron initially seemed the least like me. He was a laid back Southern Californian that made everything effortless, not just swimming. He put people at ease. He surfed. He was charming, funny, and outgoing. I, on the other hand, was admittedly pretty awkward. I watched indie films in my free time and read Stephen King books. I struggled to talk to people; my conversations tended to die quickly, and I was uncomfortable being in large groups. Even my swimming technique was one of force. Aaron glided through the water in dolphinian fashion. I made the water bleed. Aaron didn’t need shoes, even at international competitions, but he did wear sandals on occasion. I spent an hour before competitions fretting over whether I brought enough clothing to stay warm.
It wasn’t until Aaron and I were enrolled in the same Personal Finance class that I really got to know him. We were friendly toward one another at practice, but our interactions were limited to the occasional “hello” and “seeya tomorrow.” Thus, I didn’t expect us to interact much, even in class.
He sought me out the first day of class, and quickly put my reservations about us being different to rest. He asked if I wanted to be in his group for our main project, which honestly caught me by surprise. I accepted. How could I say no to Aaron Peirsol?
Our first group project in the class included me, Aaron, and an additional five students. For our first meeting, we introduced ourselves and our hobbies. I was mentally preparing to tell the other students about my own swimming accolades, my NCAA scoring, and my Big 12 titles. Aaron spoke immediately before me. He wore sandals and sported a bushy mustache that effectively disguised the ferocious competitor he actually was.
“I’m Aaron. Things I like to do… well, I suppose I like to surf, and I like to swim as well.”
“I surfed once,” another student said. Aaron nodded, and they talked about the ocean for a bit. I was dumbstruck.
That was my first surprise. Aaron is grounded, and his laid back demeanor is authentic. He genuinely likes people, and he prefers having an even playing field with his peers. His ego is saved for competition. He knows that it’s easy to stay grounded. We all live near the ground, and gravity pushes us forever closer toward it.
A year later, my swimming career was over. After the Olympic Trials in 2008, I took a road trip to Las Vegas, utterly confused about what would happen next in my life. I found myself in a haze of smoke and lost souls at a blackjack table, watching Aaron Peirsol win a gold medal on one of the television monitors above me. My phone buzzed. It was the group leader from our Personal Finance class.
“Remember that mustached guy in our class, Aaron? I think I just saw him on TV winning an Olympic gold medal…”
I smiled. I still have that text message saved.
Over the course of that semester, Aaron and I studied and spent more time together. It was somewhere in this phase of my life that I realized something profound about human nature: we tend to become what we surround ourselves with. As I talked to Aaron daily, I found myself more at ease talking to people. I was actually attending parties and talking to strangers. Aaron did it routinely, and watching him have fun with it taught me how to. The world was a place to explore, not a malevolent being that wanted to destroy me.
I remember watching music videos at Aaron’s house. He educated me on the history of punk rock and introduced me to bands like AFI (A Fire Inside). We talked literature as well, and he was better versed than I could have imagined. He told me about Roald Dahl’s horrific short stories that were lesser known than his children’s novels, and introduced me to a few. There is no question: Aaron Peirsol has depth.
One day, he convinced me to go cliff diving at Lake Travis. I agreed after some hesitation. It was a scorching summer, and why not? We arrived, and I watched him and several other Texas teammates jump into the water effortlessly from over 100 feet up.
How do they even know the depth? I skeptically thought to myself. For the first hour, I watched them from the top of the cliff. They beckoned me to jump, but I declined. I’d rather roast in the Texas heat, I thought.
Then I thought about one of Aaron’s greatest qualities. When a cliff is presented in front of him, and taking a leap of faith leads to potential opportunity, he always jumps. I thought about my past, and my hesitancy to ever jump. I could either rot in the sun, or take a leap of faith.
After about an hour of waiting, I finally took a dive. It was one of the more exhilarating experiences of my life.
After the first dive, I took another jump. And another.
It’s been almost ten years since Aaron Peirsol was my teammate, but I still remember that year more vividly than any year at the University of Texas. I texted him a few months ago on a whim, to catch up. I thought that he likely wouldn’t have my number, or if he did he wouldn’t respond. He probably has a lot going on, I thought, and I told myself that I wouldn’t be rattled if he didn’t know whom I was or message me back.
He texted back in minutes, and we chatted for a bit about life and art.
As I get older, it resonates more that I had an incredible role model in Aaron Peirsol. I also realize that life is a series of difficult choices, some safer than others. Each choice, I believe, requires jumping a cliff. The height of the cliff and the depth of the water may vary, but the only way to know the outcome of a choice is to make a jump. Sometimes the greatest choices require the highest and scariest leaps.
I don’t always make the jump, but when I find myself needing to take a risk, I try to picture myself on the cliff at Lake Travis, and I ask myself: “What would Aaron do?” And I’ve found that when I make the dive, it’s always a dive worth making.