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Virgen: Hartig comes full circle

Wella Hartig, the mother of Aaron and Hayley Peirsol, smiles when she talks about the three spots she'll speak at within six days.

The Newport Beach YMCA, Newport Harbor High and Woollett Aquatic Center are meaningful sites to her, a chance for her to go down "memory lane," as she put it. They are places that are in the background of her book, "Buoyant: How Water and Willpower Helped Wella to Channel Aaron and Hayley Peirsol." She wrote it with Laura Cottam Sajbel.

She said she came full circle on Friday as she spoke to a small group at the Newport Beach YMCA, where it all began for Hartig.

She talked about her book, her past, the personalities of her Olympic gold-medal, record-breaking swimmer of a son and the once-star distance swimmer turned triathlete turned educator of a daughter.

"It's not the athletes they are who I am proud of but it's the people who they've become from this sport," Hartig said.

Covering Aaron and getting to know him has been among the highlights of my career, and it isn't because he won five Olympic gold medals and is the world-record holder in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke.

Aaron is genuine and his down-to-earth, humble personality is refreshing. Hayley is a very sweet woman and was an energetic, outgoing girl when I met her while covering Newport Harbor aquatics. My heart broke when I heard she had experienced a break-in that rocked her and eventually affected her competitiveness while at Auburn.

But through the support of family and friends, Hayley overcame the adversity.

She and Aaron are very close, like best friends, Hartig said Friday night.

The two grew up without their biological father, yet gathered guidance from Wella and their stepfather, Tim Hartig, who was also in attendance Friday night.

Wella spoke about the motivation Aaron gathered at a young age. When he was around 10, Aaron asked his mother to take him to an art supplies store. He wanted to make a poster of a special quote and place it on the ceiling above his bed.

"Only with adversity comes greatness."

She said she cried that night when Aaron put the quote above his bed. She thought maybe he wanted to prove to his dad that he can accomplish great feats without him.

Wella spoke about her adversity that's also in her book.

"My story is a real complex one," she said. "I did not have it easy."

She said she is usually not comfortable speaking in front of people, but her desire to tell her story calmed her.

She talked about the Newport Beach YMCA, where she would take her children and where they learned to swim.

Both attended Newport Harbor High. Wella noted Aaron's willingness to add high school competition to his crazy busy training schedule and how Aaron thoroughly enjoyed leading the Newport Harbor boys' swim team to win its first CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship in 2002.

Aaron and Hayley also competed for the Irvine Novaquatics club and trained at Woollett in Irvine.

Wella's message was short and to the point, as she advised parents, "to dream big for your children." She also shared cute stories of raising Aaron and Hayley and how she swam during her pregancy and maintained thoughts that they would become swimmers.

Wella allowed time for questions. I told her Aaron was so great with the media and very well-spoken and asked her if he had taken any classes for that. She said U.S. Olympic trainers gave lessons about dealing with the media.

I believe he also gained his great manners and welcoming personality from home, from Wella and Tim, and Hayley.

The proof came from a poignant, touching moment between Wella and a man sitting in the front row Friday night.

Matt Morrison wept as he thanked Wella and expressed to the group about Aaron's impact on his daughter, Marin.

Morrison's daughter died at 18 of brain cancer in 2009. She was an elite swimmer who became a U.S. paralympic swimmer after she had paralysis on her right side. She was featured in Sports Illustrated and Swimming World Magazine among several other media.

On Friday night, Matt Morrison met Wella and Tim for the first time. He cried, but he said there were tears of joy. He was happy to see them.

"Aaron reached out to [Marin] and called her on the phone and sent her gifts and encouragement," said Matt Morrison, a sports journalist who is now a freelance writer. "It was thrilling for a 15-year-old girl who was enthralled with that guy. He was important to her."

It was powerful and heartwarming to hear about the impact Aaron had on Marin.

It was also proof of what Wella spoke about, that she really wanted her children to grow up to become great people, not just great athletes.

She said she wrote the book to help other parents, especially single parents. The book hasn't been published yet, as it is available online and she is selling a few paperback editions while in Orange County. But she believes the book will find a publisher and gain notoriety.

"I already know what I'm going to wear on Oprah," she quipped.

Wella is set to speak to parents and others on the Newport Harbor High pool deck Tuesday at 5 p.m., and at Woollett for the Novaquatics group Wednesday at 7 p.m. She will then return to Costa Rica, where she lives.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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