By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
He slipped. Or had a bad reaction time. Or a poor breakout. Something happened to Anthony Ervin in that first 5 meters of the 50-meter freestyle final at the 2012 Olympics. He popped up from under the water, and he was a half body length behind. By the time the field finished, Anthony was gaining, charging with all his talent and power and speed, but it just wasn’t enough for a medal in his first Olympic appearance since 2000.
No matter. Anthony is the type of swimmer with nothing to prove. He’s already an Olympic champion. His reemergence onto the scene of elite competitive swimming was one of the best stories of 2012. He told his story in Rolling Stone Magazine. He was featured in numerous newspapers, magazines, and websites. He was described by some sports writers as one of the best mixed zone interviews of any athlete at the Olympics – thoughtful, considerate, articulate. When Anthony Ervin touched the wall and concluded his Olympic journey, I was scared the swimming community wouldn’t see him again. I was scared that maybe Anthony was going to retire from the sport, hang up his goggles and suit, and be gone.
Instead, Anthony has been one of the great stories to come out in the limelight this autumn. He has been touring on the FINA World Cup circuit this past month, and will compete in Moscow today. His times are pretty spectacular, and he even swum a 20.99 in the 50 freestyle earlier in the tour. While many other swimmers took breaks from the competitive world, Anthony literally dove back in.
But what’s more spectacular than the times, places, and races is Anthony’s unusual and creative marketing campaign and his unorthodox methods for connecting with fans and formulating his own brand. It’s something we’ve never really seen before. And as some of the post-Olympic sponsorship money begins to dry out for elite swimmers, it could be a precedent going forward -- a way to generate and self-brand and connect with fans, a way to keep going.
A Unique Marketing Strategy
Many times, people with creative projects will produce and shoot a video on a fundraising website stating a mission statement, who they are, and what they hope to accomplish. Directors will do this. Artists, painters, photographers, too. A few months ago, for example, a video was uploaded of a bus monitor being bullied by kids, and a group of people raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to send her on a vacation. It’s the new power of internet fundraising.
Now, we’ve seen what it can do for an Olympic athlete.
Anthony has raised over 11,000 dollars to help fund his post-Olympic World Cup tour, reaching out directly to swimmers, coaches, and fans for support. He has gotten support from almost everyone, including the company Athlete Approved. Anthony also created a video where he goes through some of the more creative incentives he will offer for people who support him. For example, he’ll play you a song. That’s right. Anthony Ervin, if you donate enough money, will write and play you your very own song. Or, for 20 dollars, he’ll send you a post card from a European city. For 50 dollars, you can get a phone call from Anthony. If you really want to support him, you can spend 2,500 and get a private swim lesson.
What struck me about this is an entirely new way for swimmers to fund some of the more expensive swim tours out there. By providing creative incentives – like singing a song, or making a phone call – Anthony is literally giving back to the swim community dependent on the amount of support he gets. Also, throughout the Tour, Anthony’s journey is being updated. So not only can you donate, and then receive an autographed postcard, but you can also feel like you’re on the World Cup tour with him. Check out his Tweets, or his website. He’s uploading pictures of him talking to kids in Sweden, traveling around Russia.
It’s almost like Anthony has embraced some of the rock band roots he has and created his own “rock tour” of Europe, partially funded by his very own street team of loyal supporters. What’s amazing about all this is that bands have been doing this for years. Start-ups, films, photographers, long-distance athletes, too. And now, we’re seeing Olympic swimmers take to the Internet, to help fund their travels and excursions and training.
Anthony isn’t in this to make a profit, either.
States the website: “If and when we achieve our goal, we want to make sure we're giving back, so Anthony will donate half of anything made over $10,000 to our friends at Mamade, whose ‘Water to the Thirsty’ project is providing clean water to those in the world who need it most.”
From Omaha to London To Europe
A few months ago, I wrote that Anthony Ervin’s journey was, to paraphrase Robert Frost, “The Road Less Traveled.” His journey to the Olympics has been nothing short of astounding. He battled addiction and suicide and self-doubt. He was away from racing for years. He came back and qualified for the Olympics as a 31-year-old man, fully tattooed with a deep knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll. He caught the nation’s attention.
Now, Anthony’s road continues in the sport of swimming. That road has taken him to Omaha, to London, and now, places like Stockholm and Dubai. He remains in the pool, traveling down this unexpected road; I’m sure if you had asked him a few years ago if he would be competing at a FINA World Cup circuit, giving clinics to Swedish swimmers, he would have looked at you like, “Huh?”
I’ve seen Anthony work with kids first-hand, and I know he connects with kids on a more real level than perhaps many other Olympic athletes do. Which is why it’s so fitting that his journey was partially funded by the very kids and swimmers and coaches who adore him. So far, this aquatic, chlorinated road seems to be making all the difference.
He may have slipped on the blocks of London, or had a bad streamline or entry, or a slow reaction time, but this is more than simply surging to the wall first. This is another chapter, another act in Anthony’s brilliant career -- one that is just starting again, with the help of his supporters.
Who knows how far this road will go.