IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Olympic swimmer: Oceans need our help

It's no surprise that swimmer and gold medalist Aaron Peirsol has parlayed his passion for water into activism. Here, he talks about environmental awareness, education, and his most recent project, Race for the Oceans.
/ Source: TODAY

It's no secret that U.S. Olympic swimmer and gold medalist Aaron Peirsol has a deep love for the water. That's why the California native has parlayed his interest — and status as a sports figure — into causes to save our planet's oceans. Here, he talks about environmental awareness, education, and his most recent project, Race for the Oceans.

Q: When did your relationship with the water really begin?

A: I have always had a very natural connection to the water, and that connection stems from the ocean itself. I think a more pertinent question would be “Did I ever not have a relationship with the water?”

Q: Can you give a quick rundown of the ocean/water preservation programs and organizations you’ve been involved with?

A: I began working with Oceana, which is the largest international organization that is dedicated to solving the oceans’ problems, about three years ago. As opposed to spreading themselves thin over many environmental issues, Oceana's decision to solely work on the world's oceans enables them to work toward achieving measurable change by conducting specific, fact-based campaigns with fixed deadlines and articulated goals.

Q: What made you decide to lend your time and effort to these causes? Why oceans?

A: I grew up in an area of a lot of growth, in Orange County, California, and spent most of my youth on the beach. I had witnessed the degradation of our Back Bay and the increased number of closed beach days over the years and had come to my own realization that people should make a stand for the things they love and want to see survive infinite generations.

Q: What are you trying to achieve with your involvement? What do you get out of it, personally?

A: I think the best thing I can hope to achieve is to educate, or make aware, as many people as possible on how the little things they do every day really do affect our environment, and how easy it is to fix some of those things. Bringing a canvas bag to the grocery store is a simple and incredibly effective solution. So is being aware of what you dump in your storm drains. Other things include knowing which fish you buy at the store are sustainable. It's no secret our fish populations are dwindling more every year.

Q: What made you decide to become a spokesperson for Oceana?

A: I was incredibly impressed with their scope of what they could do on the international level for conservation. The fact that they used lobbying as a tool to get their message across also seemed extremely effective. And they were really receptive to me when I came to them and asked what I could do to help.

Q: What’s happening to the Earth’s oceans? Why is it so important to save them?

A: It's a case of many oceans around the world being degraded by negligence. The ocean is the lifeblood of our world. If we were to lose our fish that we appreciate so much by overfishing; or if we were to lose some of our favorite beaches to overbuilding and pollution, then how would we feel? It's become a case of not knowing what you've got until it's gone. But by no means is it too late. We can still maintain our coasts and oceans for the generations to come, who deserve what we have.

Q: What needs to happen to clean them up? What can the average person do to help?

A: I believe it's a matter of collective involvement. What I said about the little things making a big difference; I believe that to be very true. I’m a part of a program called Toyota’s Engines of Change Program. The message is that anyone can make a difference in their community or for whatever cause they feel strongly about. Everyone can be an Engine of Change.

For me, I work with Oceana to help save the oceans. But anyone can help. The canvas bags at the grocery market; the buying of sustainable fish at the market; and even the knowledge that every river does lead to an ocean. It really is the easy things that can add up to be a lot. They don't cost a lot of money, just a little time, and a willingness to make a change. It doesn't matter that you live in Oklahoma or Iowa; everyone has a profound effect on the ocean, and the environment in general. Recycling seems easy enough, but here in Austin we only just received recycling bins large enough to take all of our recyclables. There is still a long way to go.

Q: Your Race for the Oceans event just happened last weekend (congrats!). What was the goal of the event, and how did it turn out?

A: On top of just being able to spend a long weekend at Fort Myers Beach, the goal was to raise awareness of the state of our oceans, which I do feel looks incredibly promising. The Lee County government and their sports commission supported this event and helped us get it off the ground. That was a wonderful partnership for us and I can’t say enough great things about their support for this cause and this event. And sponsors like PureSport and B of A [Bank of America], who truly cared about this cause, made all the difference in the world. They had volunteers there to help and made donations to the cause. Truly those supports made all this possible, and hopefully will help us continue for many years to come. With this past weekend being the inaugural event, and it going as well as it did, I think that maybe I can make a positive impact on a much larger scale. The folks that showed up for the event and even the ones just on the beach seemed real receptive to the cause.

Q: Do you think your celebrity status has helped get your message out?

A: The original goal was to get the swimming community involved in the event as much as possible, and I think that my past accolades have helped a bit in that regard. Nonetheless, I think people would be receptive to this cause regardless. The folks at my Race for the Oceans last weekend seemed quite enthusiastic about the event and the cause it represents, to the point where it reinvigorates me to continue to make a difference.

Q: What’s next for you, as an activist? As an athlete?

A: This was only the first Race for the Oceans, and I hope and plan to have many more. As an athlete, I'll be wet, and I’ll be back in the water soon enough to train.