Anthony Ervin, the oldest person on USA 2016 swim team at age 35, talks about his sport. He moved to Charlotte three months ago. sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Anthony Ervin, the oldest person on USA 2016 swim team at age 35, talks about his sport. He moved to Charlotte three months ago. sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

Scott Fowler

Depression. Drugs. Alcohol. Tourette’s. And at 35, another Olympics.

July 23, 2016 06:59 AM

UPDATED July 24, 2016 12:49 PM

Anthony Ervin moved to Charlotte three months ago to try to add to one of the strangest and most successful comebacks in swimming history. And at age 35, he has become an Olympian once again – the oldest swimmer on the American team.

But those words aren’t nearly enough to describe Ervin. Let’s try a few more: His father is black, his mother is Jewish. He has Tourette’s Syndrome. During his darkest and most self-destructive times, he retired at age 22, experimented with all sorts of mind-altering drugs, got addicted to cigarettes, tried to make it as a rock guitarist, became deeply depressed, harbored suicidal thoughts and drove a motorcycle 177 mph. He is so heavily inked on his arms that his tattoos appear to have their own tattoos.

Ervin also reads widely and deeply. He won an Olympic gold medal in 2000. He later auctioned it off for $17,101, giving the proceeds to a tsunami relief fund.

“I feel like my own success is a personal vanity,” Ervin told me in a recent interview. “I know it’s illusory. It doesn’t have much meaning.”

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And yet Ervin has relearned how to love the water and – 16 years after his first Olympic appearance at age 19 – has again turned himself into one of the fastest swimmers in the world. He slices through water like a “barracuda” in the pool, as SwimMAC Team Elite coach David Marsh said. After skipping every Olympics in his 20s – the decade in which most swimmers peak – Ervin has somehow become a three-time Olympian.

Once viewed as a rebellious novelty in the swim world who threw away his talent in pursuit of Dionysian pleasures, Ervin is now admired for his late-in-the-game comeback. At training camp this past week, his 46 U.S. Olympic swimming teammates elected him as one of the squad’s six captains. Ervin had to prep to give a speech after that to the U.S. team, so he started thumbing through Shakespeare’s “Henry V” for inspiration.

Marsh first got to know Ervin at the 2000 Olympics, when Marsh was a U.S. assistant coach and Ervin a teenaged phenom. Marsh never coached him day-to-day, though, until Ervin came to Charlotte in early 2016. Ervin wanted to give Marsh the last coaching say in getting him ready for the 2016 Olympic Trials.

“David has the magic touch, and we’ve all seen it many times,” Ervin said.

Ervin will be one of six swimmers representing SwimMAC at the Olympics in Brazil. Marsh will be there, too, as the U.S. women’s team head coach.

The decision to fly cross-country to make a temporary home in Charlotte wasn’t as impulsive as many of Ervin’s decisions in his 20s. He had been working out occasionally with SwimMAC for years during vacation. And his parents retired to Fort Mill a dozen years ago, although most of Ervin’s own roots are in California. It was there that he grew up, went to college and first started morphing into one of swimming’s anti-heroes.

Ervin believes he just completed his best Olympic Trials ever, qualifying both in the 4x100 freestyle relay and individually in the 50-meter freestyle. This time, he said, will feel a lot different than it did when he was 19 and tied for a gold medal in the 50 free.

“When I was 19,” he said, “it all seemed very haphazard and chaotic and very lucky. I was more constructed than doing the constructing. This time, I feel like I am in the driver’s seat.”

A fascinating autobiography

You won’t find many athletes like Ervin, nor will you find many sports autobiographies like his recently published “Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian.” Like him or not – and if you read the book, there will be times you don’t like him at all – it’s fascinating. Athletes generally write tell-all books like this only after they have retired for many years and have much less left to lose (Jose Canseco and Lawrence Taylor come to mind).

Ervin is still competing as an athlete at the top of his game. And yet he is writing about everything from setting fires to outrunning cops on a motorcycle and from his occasional forays into cross-dressing to a suicide attempt in which he took all the pills he uses to control his Tourette’s at once.

A sample passage from when Ervin is describing the way he once blended into a crowd: “Here I’m as invisible as all the selves I’ve left behind – the lonely kid with the tics, the pyrotechnic delinquent, the broke couch surfer, the suicidal wastrel, the Zen Buddhist. ...”

If it sounds like serious stuff, it can be. But Ervin is also playful. Witness a few excerpts from the way Ervin hacked his own Wikipedia biographical page once – making edits to the “Anthony Ervin” biography that stayed intact for 48 hours.

“Adrift in the ethereal plane for 7,777 years, Tony (as he is better known) shrugged and tore a hole into our reality. ... In his earthly existence, Tony enjoys swimming, sleeping, playing the guitar and singing. He is an Olympic champion in swimming and sleeping, but his musical abilities are second-rate at best.”

Kicked on the floor – literally

Ervin begins his book with a quote from “The Odyssey,” and he has certainly been on one himself. One of his best friends, a swimming coach in New York named Elliot Ptasnik, told me about the first time he met a guy named “Tony.” The guy had been crashing on the couch of the apartment Ptasnik just moved into in New York.

“I walked in during the middle of the afternoon and he’s sleeping on the hardwood floor,” Ptasnik said. “Finally my new roommate, who knows him, says we’ve got to wake him up. He tells me to give him a swift kick to get him up. I didn’t want to kick him – I didn’t even know the guy – but finally I did. Up pops this figure wearing parachute pants and glasses, and he’s got this wild hair like Sideshow Bob in ‘The Simpsons.’ All three of us sat on a tiny couch and watched the Discovery Channel for awhile, and it was only the next day that I figured out this guy going by ‘Tony’ is actually Anthony Ervin, the gold medalist.”

Ervin at that point was relying on the kindness of friends in New York, crashing on various couches for weeks or months at a time while he tried to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He couldn’t hold a job. He had little ambition. This was the time in his life that his eventual book co-author and close friend Constantine Markides met him.

He had a gaunt-English-major-turned-tattooed-indie-hipster vibe going. The kind of guy you might find behind the counter in a record store.

Constantine Markides, on his co-author Anthony Ervin

Markides would write later of his first impression of Ervin: “He had a gaunt-English-major-turned-tattooed-indie-hipster vibe going. The kind of guy you might find behind the counter in a record store.”

Illegal drugs and cigarettes had become a part of Ervin’s life. He had run away from swimming and dropped out of college at Cal-Berkeley. He had always had a love-hate relationship with the sport, which provided him all sorts of opportunities but required huge amounts of training and kept him from other things he wanted to do. He never quite got over having to skip an Iron Maiden and Megadeth concert for a minor weekend swim meet. Ptasnik said at the time Ervin was “a little aimless. He was couch surfing, partying a lot, rolling cigarettes and going to punk rock shows. He was a little lost.”

A good start

Born and raised in California by a Jewish mother and an African-American father, Ervin does not have the typical build of a swimming sprinter. He is longer and leaner. “The way he swims, he’s a barracuda,” Marsh said. “He slips through the water. Water just peels off of him.”

Ervin didn’t know what to do with the great early success he achieved in swimming. As he writes in his book: “You’re the best only for that moment and then it’s past and you must prove it again. In my experience, being the best is awesome for a second and then sucks.”

Marsh had witnessed Ervin’s journey, mostly from afar. But he had seen similar stories play out among other elite athletes who flounder, wondering what to do next, when the cheering stops.

The way he swims, he's a barracuda. He slips through the water. Water just peels off of him.

Coach David Marsh on swimmer Anthony Ervin

“During eight years of retirement,” Marsh said, “Tony went through what is too often common to the highest-level athletes who retire. He was a lost soul without a grip on a routine or pillar that would help him gain clarity for his next steps.”

Ervin found that clarity once he rejoined the swimming world. His pals, like Ptasnik and Markides, helped him get there. “I got him on a Masters team with me, just trying to get him back in the water to cheer him up a little bit,” Ptasnik said.

For an example of someone else who had trouble out of the water, look no further than Michael Phelps. The 18-time Olympic gold medalist has gone to alcohol rehab, been arrested twice for DUI and been photographed smoking out of a bong.

Eventually, Ervin decided he wanted to end his eight-year retirement and swim competitively once more. He went back to Cal-Berkeley, finishing his degree and swimming alongside some of the collegiate swimmers. He returned to form more quickly than just about anyone could imagine. In 2012, Ervin and SwimMAC’s Cullen Jones made the Olympics in Ervin’s specialty – the 50-meter sprint, swimming’s shortest race.

In the Olympic final in London, Jones swam a superb race but was out-touched by France’s Florent Manaudou, who won gold. Jones won a silver medal. Ervin finished a disappointing fifth, the victim of another one of the poor starts that he has tried hard to fix in Charlotte.

“The start has always been my Achilles heel,” Ervin said.

Success can be toxic

Ervin didn’t retire from swimming after those Olympics and instead continued to find joy in his sport again. He gave up the cigarettes long ago and now is swimming times that are about as good as they were at his peak 15 years ago.

“For me,” he said, “it’s the best job in the world. I get to work out and take care of my body. I enjoy the company of younger people, they keep you young. ... Although my own success is a vanity, I never said sport itself was meaningless, just my own success. I think sport is great. It’s a beautiful thing and it leads to beautiful lives.”

Between these two Olympics, Ervin and Markides combined on a book that took close to two years. “It’s not like I had to coax anything out of him,” Markides told me. “Anthony wanted to do this. When he goes for something, whatever it is, he wants to really go for it.”

So in a couple of weeks Ervin will go for another gold medal even though, as he told me: “I’m keenly aware that success can be toxic.”

Was that the way it was for you the first time? I ask.

“For sure,” Ervin said. “But I’m still here.”