16 years is a long time… especially for an athlete. Only few careers last for such a long time in any sport. It happens even less often that someone returns after missing out almost 10 years and continues where he left off. Becoming an Olympic champion again after such a long period can virtually be regarded as a miracle…
Anthony Ervin is a special character in the field of swimming in America, moreover in the whole world. Before London 2012 many people turned their heads away when he returned after a nine-year gap and appeared at the American Olympic trial. Later on, after his historical victory in Rio he was labelled as one of the most inspiring swimmers in the history of swimming.
He has come a long way since then and it is not yet over… But how did it start?
He was born and grew up as a child of African-American and Jewish parents in Valencia, California. Although he was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome (it is a common neuropsychiatric disorder with onset in childhood, characterized by multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic), however, it did not prevent him from swimming very fast. While studying in California-Berkeley University he dominated NCAA Championships and in 2015 he was appointed to the Hall of Fame in Berkeley as a 27-time champion.
At the age of 19 he won 50 m freestyle in Sydney 2000 tied with his compatriot, Jerry Hall Jr. At the World Championships in 2001 he claimed gold medals in both 50 and 100 m freestyle. The following year he collected two silver medals in the Pan-American Games (50 m freestyle and 4x100 m freestyle relay), after the event he announced his retirement at the age of 22. He could not cope with all that getting into the spotlight meant. ‘Socially I was an uneducated young guy in Sydney, who did not know what meant to represent African-American community… I did not know what meant to be an Olympic champion that it brought also responsibility, representation and expectations as well.’
A new life started… without competitive sport. He tried to live, experience and sometimes survive this kind of life without swimming. He played the guitar in rock bands, got himself fully inked with tattoos, pursued pleasures – drugs, alcohol and women –, he crashed his motorbike while escaping from police and he attempted suicide as well, when he overdosed his medication for Tourette’s syndrome. However, he could stand up, continued his studies, read, wrote poems, dug deep in Zen Buddhism and travelled around the world.
Once on a Saturday night – out of the blue, just as he had left his previous life – he returned to the university and to swimming also. While he was training children in a summer camp, they made him realise what he had loved about swimming. His speed returned immediately. In January 2012 he swam excellent times in Austin, then other GPs followed and he arrived at the American Olympic trial as a real aspirant. He had trained six months before London and he qualified for the final at the Olympics, while others had struggled and worked hard to do so for four years… It is not surprising that some people gave him a dirty look.
Then came races, medals and placements, but the real breakthrough was to come only in Rio. As a new dad first he qualified to the Olympic team and then he was chosen as one of the captains of the 46-member American swimming team, where he cited Shakespeare’s Henry V to motivate his teammates.
And on 12th August 2016 something happened which lifted Ervin, who had already had an interesting life, to a higher level. 16 years after his victory in Sydney Olympics, in Rio he again became the fastest man in water at the age of 35 and also the oldest swimmer ever to win individual Olympic gold.
After Rio he was in the spotlight again, not only in the American media, since many people were amazed by the story of the prodigal son’s return. Nevertheless, today Anthony is living as a mature, experienced man, he holds speeches and motivates a huge number of people by his rugged yet inspiring and emotional journey.
Just for the record: Ervin claimed his first World Championships title exactly 16 years ago in Fukuoka 2001. The final of men’s 50 m freestyle will take place on 29th July in the Danube Arena in Budapest. The rest is up to your imagination and certainly to Anthony Ervin…
Born: 26th May, 1981, Valencia, USA
Olympics: 3 gold (50 m freestyle – Sydney and Rio, 4x100 m freestyle relay – Rio), 1 silver (4x100 m freestyle relay – Sydney)
World Championships: 2 gold (50 and 100 m freestyle – Fukuoka), 1 silver (4x100 m freestyle relay – Barcelona)