If rivalries are the gold standard of sports, the catalysts that
elevate mere effort to theater, then the return of Olympic hero
Lenny Krayzelburg last week was splendid news for swimming--and
for 19-year-old Aaron Peirsol. Not since the 2000 Sydney Games
had Krayzelburg, the U.S.'s best-known active male swimmer, and
Peirsol, the new king of the backstroke, met in the same pool,
and their long-anticipated showdown was worth the wait. "Having
Lenny there brought out the best in me," Peirsol said last Friday
after edging Krayzelburg by .24 of a second in a breathtaking
200-meter backstroke at the Janet Evans Invitational in Los
Angeles. "The sport has missed him."
This is an article from the July 29, 2002 issue
Not that Krayzelburg, 26, ever left. It's just that after winning
both backstroke gold medals in Sydney (as well as a relay gold),
he dived through his post-Olympic window of opportunity and
claimed the spoils of a champion. "In our sport you don't get
many chances like that," he says, "so you try and make the most
Blond, handsome and built like a linebacker, the man who
emigrated with his family from Ukraine in 1989 has become perhaps
the world's most popular Jewish athlete, "a darling on the Jewish
fund-raising circuit," according to the Jewish daily Forward.
Last year he skipped the world championships to compete--and carry
the U.S. flag--at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, and at recent
events he has spoken on the same dais as New York City mayor
Michael Bloomberg and Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge.
The rubber-chicken tour took a toll, however. "I think Lenny's
too fat to talk, much less swim," Peirsol cracked last year,
frustrated by his rival's absence from major meets. Since winning
silver in the 200 as a precocious 17-year-old in Sydney, Peirsol
has lorded over the backstroke, and in March his 1:55.15 blitzed
Krayzelburg's 200 world record by .72. Though Peirsol's jab was a
delightful bit of saber rattling--rivalries need saber rattling,
after all--it was uncharacteristic of the two swimmers' amicable
relationship. "Aaron and I get along fine," Krayzelburg said last
week. "He was learning how to talk to the media, and there was
probably some truth to it. When he said that, I weighed 25 more
pounds than I do now."
Peirsol may be all business in the water, but he retains plenty
of endearing youthful quirks. An Irvine, Calif., native, he surfs
up to four times a week at nearby Newport Beach, and his plan for
improving swimming's marketability includes "smaller Speedos on
girls." Befitting your typical Maxim reader on the eve of his
freshman year at the University of Texas, Peirsol proudly
describes himself as a young punk. "I want to stay that way," he
says with a chuckle. "I don't want to be an old fogy"--uh-oh, here
we go again--"like Lenny."
The 6'4", 180-pound Peirsol is an anomaly in the backstroke, an
event which has traditionally been ruled on the men's side by
strapping specimens in their 20s, guys like Krayzelburg. The
scary thing, Peirsol's coach Dave Salo believes, is that his
youth affords him room for improvement before the 2004 Olympics
in Athens. "Aaron is just scratching the surface of his
potential," Salo says. "He's not nearly as strong as he can be,
and that's why he'll get better."
For his part Krayzelburg, who started training seriously last
December after being sidelined by shoulder surgery last August
and a lung infection in the spring, is rounding into top form.
(He also injured his right ACL while running earlier this month,
which won't keep him out of the nationals next month but will
require surgery at season's end.) Though Krayzelburg minimized
expectations before last week's 200--"I won't be ready to compete
with Aaron for another year," he claimed--he nearly overtook
Peirsol in the final stages of the race, finishing in 1:59.33 to
Peirsol's 1:59.09. Later, surprised by his advanced state of
fitness, Krayzelburg was more direct. "If I wasn't planning on
competing--and winning--in the next Olympics, I wouldn't be here,"
That sound you heard was unmistakable. It was the sound of sabers
rattling on the pool deck.