By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Life hasn’t been easy or simple over the many years since Anthony Ervin won gold in the 50 freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
After winning world titles the next year in the 50 and 100 freestyles, Ervin was restless in life and swimming – fighting some inner demons – and within a few months, was contemplating making a drastic, life-altering change.
Two years later, at just 22 years old, he retired, vowing not to return.
He sank deep into a counter-culture trap, playing guitar, growing dreads, tattooing sleeves on both arms and smoking and drinking. Locked in a world of substance use and depression, he attempted suicide by eating a bottle of tranquilizers and had a high-speed chase with the cops in Berkeley, where he swam collegiately, ending with his motorcycle entangled with a Mustang and his shoulder separated and hanging from a sling.
He was headed nowhere fast, swapping Olympic and world venues for tattoo parlors and record shops and looking for a sign of what the future might still hold for him and his amazing talent wrapped in indifference and self-admittedly, arrogance and entitlement.
“I had been dealing with swimming burnout for a number of years, even before high school, but I told myself and was told by others to keep doing it,” Ervin said. “There reached a point when I realized that aside from my love for my team and teammates, it wasn’t what I wanted. I spent many years doing it when I didn’t want to, and I decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore.”
After hitting rock bottom, Ervin had an epiphany of sorts. His brush with death resulted in what he calls a “moment-with-God-type thing,” and he decided to make the most of his second chance.
Home for Christmas in 2004, he, along with the rest of the world, watched as the tsunami wreaked havoc upon Indonesia, and feeling compelled to do something to help, auctioned off his gold medal with the proceeds going to help those suffering through the devastation.
“I was feeling very mystic at the time and needed to cleanse myself by doing something that would help others,” Ervin said. “Just seeing the number of lives that were lost and watching the devastation, I knew I needed to do something, and I was able to do that with my medal.”
Good friend Gary Hall Jr., with whom Ervin tied for gold in Sydney, offered him a paid coaching opportunity to teach swim lessons to kids in New York. Working with kids and seeing their enthusiasm revived his own interest in the sport, and it wasn’t long before he began entertaining thoughts about getting back into competitive swimming.
He slowly rediscovered his love for the sport – and for himself.
“I had a lot of regrets for leaving when and the way that I did, and how can you move forward if you are living with regret?” Ervin said. “I started thinking about what could have been, and it motivated me to see what I still had and what I could still do.”
He returned to his Cal-Berkeley roots and watched as the Bear men swimmers won a national title. Inspired, he joined a few workouts and found he still had his old speed. With the help of Cal coaches Teri McKeever and Dave Durden, he rejoined the swim world – but with a much different perspective and appreciation. Shortly after that, he enrolled in grad school at Cal and was on the fast-track to reclaiming a life in and out of the water he once discarded and held with little regard.
“I just felt ready,” Ervin said. “I had taken the time I needed to figure out my own life and what I was doing, but I wanted to make this a slow process. I wanted to return unhindered, unfettered with being a professional swimmer. I needed to do it for me and on my own terms.”
And he has. After training and competing for the better part of a year, Ervin swam faster than he did 12 years ago when he won gold in Australia to finish second behind Cullen Jones and make the U.S. Olympic team in the 50 freestyle.
A few weeks later in London, with much of the pressure off of him, Ervin made the finals by swimming a new personal best 21.62 in the semis. He ended his “non-comeback” with a fifth-place finish at the Olympics and a tremendous sense of satisfaction and optimism for what lies ahead.
But, at 31, will he continue to train and compete for the United States? At Trials, he alluded to the fact that he planned to stick around longer than the Olympics, but as of right now, he’s leaving things up in the air and just enjoying the journey.
“Life continues much the same as before: swimming, grad school and working with kids,” Ervin said. “I already had the medals. This time around was all about the experience. I absolutely have a new perspective on life; however, I'm still digesting everything so I won't say much at this point, but know that it’s beautiful.”