Anthony Ervin: Comeback kid

Published On August 9, 2012 | By Jill Saftel

Anthony Ervin may be swimming’s bad boy, but the sport has allowed him to reinvent himself. Credit: Matt Ryerson-US PRESSWIRE

This is the fourth piece in a seven-day series featuring US Olympians who in some way lead extraordinary lives aside from their medals and athletic talent. Check out part one on John Orozco, part two on Jake Gibb, and part three on Kayla Harrison.

Anthony Ervin’s arms are covered in sleeves of tattoos. He has been involved in a police chase and has spent a night in jail. At one point his curly hair was grown into dreadlocks, he worked a string of odd jobs, played in a rock band, became an alcoholic, experimented with drugs, and attempted suicide. We won’t blame you if you aren’t picturing a 2012 Olympian.

He found success early, winning gold in a deadlocked tie with Gary Hall Jr. in the 50m freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when he was 19 years old. Ervin’s path to the 2000 Games was unorthodox, but nowhere near as strange as his return to the London Games 12 years later. As a child, his parents enrolled him in swim classes because of behavioral problems. He soon learned he had a talent, but still hated swimming as he began to win races. Ervin was then diagnosed with Tourette syndrome and had to take large doses of tranquilisers, but they weren’t able to slow him down.

By his senior year of high school, Ervin was ranked second in the nation in his age group and earned himself a swimming scholarship to Berkeley. From there he went to Sydney, and won the 50m and 100m freestyle a year later at the World Championships in Japan, but it’s after his success there that his story takes a turn for the strange.

Ervin sold his Olympic gold medal on eBay, not to pocket the $17,101 it brought in, but to donate the funds to Unicef for tsunami relief efforts. At the age of 22, Ervin quit swimming. After that he fell into the aforementioned lifestyle atypical of an elite Olympic athlete. He didn’t stay in one place for long, and his swimming career was all but a distant memory.

That is, until someone from his past brought him back to the swimming world. A connection through Hall Jr. got Ervin a job at a swimming school. He took the job solely for the income, but it was there that he rediscovered his love for the sport, among children who were just having fun. Although he was still struggling with depression, Ervin re-enrolled at Berkeley in 2007. He began training seriously in 2010 as a way to fight his depression.

“When I gave it all up, I went into my chrysalis and did all my partying and self-actualising in New York,” he told Rolling Stone. “I’d like to think that I’m emerging now as my moth. And I’m going to fly into the flames.”

After graduating, he started a master’s program at Cal in education and the university swimming coach, Teri McKeever, allowed Ervin to join the swimming program under the condition he enlisted in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s drug testing program. Swimming became physical and emotional therapy and Ervin found himself improving at each meet he competed in.

Soon enough, his times in the 50m freestyle were back at competition level, and he came in second place at the U.S. Olympic trials with a new personal best time. In London, Ervin finished fifth in the event’s final and off the podium, but that didn’t make his epic return to the Games any less successful for the 31-year-old. His return to the sport after over a decade of abuse to his body away from training is a feat in and of itself.

“I don’t feel alienated,” Ervin told Rolling Stone of his return to the swimming world. “I just feel identity. Swimming now is me trying to reclaim what I didn’t have when I was younger, the ethic and the love for it.”

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About The Author

Jill studies journalism at Northeastern University, covers Hockey East for College Hockey News and is the sports editor for The Huntington News. You can follow her on Twitter at @jillsaftel, just don't ask her to choose between hockey and baseball, it's impossible.