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

Anthony Ervin, the most fascinating man in swimming, trying to be the fastest

August 10, 2016 05:56 PM

UPDATED August 10, 2016 09:46 PM

RIO DE JANEIRO

Anthony Ervin won his first Olympic gold medal in 2000, when he was 19.

Then came a 16-year gap.

Then Ervin won his second career gold medal Sunday as part of a U.S. relay team. He swims again starting on Thursday in his specialty – the 50-meter freestyle, a 22-second, splash-and-dash sprint that ranks as the shortest race in swimming.

If Ervin wins that race – he won’t be favored, but will have a chance if he gets off to a good start like he only does occasionally – at age 35 he will become the oldest Olympic swimmer to ever win an individual event.

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That’s the short version of Ervin’s life story in Olympic terms, but it leaves out the most interesting parts. What happened to Ervin in those 16 years between his first gold medal and his second is a fascinating story of self-destruction and redemption.

Ervin’s first gold medal in 2000 caused him more angst than pleasure. He ended up auctioning it off for $17,101, then giving the proceeds to a tsunami relief fund. He retired from swimming at age 22.

As he chronicles in his 2016 autobiography “Chasing Water,” Ervin then started experimenting with all kinds of hallucinogenic drugs. He joined a couple of different bands and tried to make it as a rock guitarist. He got deeply depressed and once tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of the medicine he uses to control his Tourette’s Syndrome. He once drove a motorcycle at 177 mph and given that was not surprisingly also involved in a near-death wreck on a motorcycle another time.

“Maybe you can say he’s lucky to be alive,” David Marsh, Ervin’s coach at Charlotte-based SwimMAC Carolina, said of Ervin. “And he’s making the best of that. He’s now in this window of time where he’s just in his best place.”

As Ervin told me when he compared the Olympic team he made at age 19 to this one: “When I was 19, 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.”

Those iffy starts

The peak years for a male swimmer are almost always in his 20s. In that decade, Ervin not only didn’t make an Olympic swim team, he didn’t even try to make one. He spent a lot of time getting tattoos, which he felt was a way of reclaiming his own skin. He eventually found the love for his sport again and made the U.S. Olympic team in 2012. Then he finished fifth in the 50 free after getting off to a terrible start (Charlotte’s Cullen Jones was second). Ervin moved to Charlotte about four months ago, in part because he needed help with his start.

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

“He can outswim everybody,” Marsh said, “but he’s got to get in the game with them first.”

On this Olympic team, Ervin is the oldest swimmer and was voted a team captain by his teammates. In that role he has shown the sort of leadership that he was never much interested in before, when he was blowing off practices in college at Cal-Berkeley and still blowing people out of the water.

An example: On Sunday, Ervin swam the fastest “split” time in the 4x100 relay preliminaries Sunday afternoon. Normally, that guarantees you a spot in the relay final that night, in front of the bright lights and NBC cameras.

Because other swimmers had purposely been rested for the final, the U.S. team was only taking one swimmer from the prelims into the night event. It would be between Ervin and N.C. State star Ryan Held, whom Ervin had edged with his preliminary time and also had beaten in a training camp, real-time race for the same event.

But Held was 14 years younger and also swimming only the relay, while Ervin still had his individual event left. The coaches met and decided on Held (who would later have all sorts of people swooning when he cried during the gold-medal ceremony).

The coaches came to tell Ervin first. Bob Bowman, the head U.S. men’s coach, broke the news with Marsh (the head women’s coach) also in the room.

“Anthony first just took a deep breath, looked straight ahead and was obviously contemplating what to say,” Marsh said. “Then he started nodding and said, ‘What do we need to do to make the most of this?’”

Sensing an opportunity, Marsh suggested to Ervin that he could be the one who could go tell Held that he would be taking the coveted spot on the night relay final. This would be somewhat like a person who loses an election being asked to go inform the winner, but Marsh had used the tactic before with good results.

Ervin said yes.

“So Anthony got to go give the blessing of the relay position to Ryan Held,” Marsh said.

Stay open, stay calm

In the 50 freestyle, Ervin will swim the preliminaries Thursday morning. He should advance to the top 16, where he will swim in the semifinals Thursday night. He will need to have one of the top eight times there. If he does, he will then swim in the Friday night final at 9:44 p.m. against a field that will undoubtedly all be younger than he is.

If Ervin were to win any sort of medal, he undoubtedly will enjoy it more this time around – although he has always had a love-hate relationship with the modest fame swimming has brought him.

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.”

To be the best at 35, though – that would be something. Ervin knows he will be jittery about all sorts of things before he dives into the water, for he always is.

“My whole season becomes an idiosyncratic development,” he said. “I get very nervous. It becomes an all-consuming task to stay calm, to keep myself open... You don’t heap pressure on yourself, because it can make you close down and shrivel up. You fight that. You stay open. You stay calm. You trust that all the work you did. And that will make you free.”