Anthony Ervin can probably claim more superlatives than any other American swimmer. He’s been the first, the fastest, the youngest, the oldest, the longest, and as it was once expressed very delicately, the most interesting. Here are the explanations for each in order of importance.
First. It’s Black History Month, and Ervin is the man when it comes to African American swimming history. When he finished fifth in the 100 free at the Olympic Trials in 2000, he became the first African American to make a U.S. Olympic swimming team. There were ones before him who set the stage -- Nate Clark (1962, first NCAA finalist), Chris Silva (1984, first to compete in an Olympic Trials), and Sabir Muhammad (1995, first to set an American record) – but not many, which makes the point that diversity has never been a strong point of competitive swimming in the U.S.
Later in the 2000 Trials, Ervin finished second in the 50 free to Gary Hall, Jr., thereby guaranteeing an Olympic swim in an individual event and ensuring a second African American first.
Fastest. On the world stage, Ervin presented the riskiest of athletic predictions. He had just finished his freshman year at Cal-Berkeley. He was only 19. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of the gift he had been given to propel himself so quickly through water. “A stunt,” he would call it later, “a well performed acrobatic.”
Yet he handled himself in Sydney like a seasoned professional. He placed fourth in the preliminaries of the 50 free with a 22.24. He dropped to 22.13 in the semifinals, which seeded him third in the final. He then swam a 21.98 to tie Hall for the win. An Olympic gold medal and another African American first.
Youngest. The 50 free was first held at the Olympics in 1988. Thirteen men and women have won gold medals in the event (there’s been one tie and four have won twice). None of them other than Ervin were under 20.
Oldest. In 2016, at the age of 35, Ervin captured his second Olympic gold medal in the 50 free. He’s the only swimmer, African American or any other, to win a gold medal at that advanced athletic age. And he did with a career best time, 21.40.
Longest. Sixteen years between gold medals – who would have thought? Once again, he’s wasn’t just the first African American, he was the first swimmer ever to win individual gold medals with that many years in between.
Most Interesting. This is where Ervin’s story gets complicated. He retired from swimming in 2003 and didn’t return for eight years, when he began to train for the 2012 Olympics. (He finished fifth in the 50 free in London). In between was an unsettling journey he described in copious detail in the book Chasing Water, which he wrote with Constantine Markides. It’s not a read for the faint of heart. He took a fast trip to rock bottom yet came away unmarked other than the tattoo sleeves that cover his arms.
Certainly another first of some kind.