Swim Free with Anthony ErvinThere was a time when the weight of a gold medal was more than Anthony Ervin could bear. Then he learned the anxiety was there to be embraced, rebellion to be encouraged, and the path to finding himself would lead once again through the pool
In a sense, this pool, dingy and dimly lit, is where it all began. Anthony Ervin was basically lost in 2006 when he scrounged enough money for a one-way ticket to New York, a city he’d never even visited. He was 25 and broke, having dropped out of college, quit his band, and run out of hobbies to distract himself from the reality that he was a former world-class swimmer who had no idea what to do with his life.
When an old friend who had swum with him at the University of California offered him a job teaching part-time at the swim school he’d co-founded four years earlier, Ervin thought, “What do I have to lose? I might as well try New York.” So, six years after winning a gold medal in the 50m Freestyle at the Sydney Olympics as a college freshman, Ervin packed up his guitar, flew east, and began to teach five-year-olds how to doggy paddle.
“I spent a lot of time here,” says Ervin, slumping back in a folding chair on a deck overlooking the pool on Manhattan’s East Side where a new generation of kids splashes around. His former employer, Imagine Swimming, is now the largest swimming school in New York City. And Ervin, at 35, is once again the Olympic gold medallist at 50m – the fastest swimmer on Earth – 16 years after he won for the first time.
Ervin’s eyes are red. His lids sag. He’s fighting a cold and just off a flight from Brazil, where he entered and won a made-for-spectators race, then caught the red eye to New York. Tomorrow he’ll fly to Washington to meet the President. Since Rio, Ervin has had a total of two days off. Otherwise, he’s just “riding this thing as long as I can”, he says competing for prize money, taking speaking gigs, and doing the paid meet-and-greets afforded to Olympic stars.
The first time around, Ervin did none of that. He was a teenager who went from unranked swimmer to Olympic champion in the course of a year, and – like so many other young stars – he couldn’t handle it. Within three years, he’d quit the sport.
If you had told Anthony Ervin at 23 or 27 that he’d ever return to the Olympics, let alone win, he would have laughed in your face. Even after he moved to New York and started teaching, Ervin says, he wasn’t proud of his medal; it felt more like an albatross. “That was not the mantle I wanted to assume,” he says. “I wasn’t comfortable with it.” Ervin was finished with swimming. “But I needed a job.”
And that job, eventually, sparked the fire that had long since burned out. Given time, Ervin came to see that everything he’d done during his nine-year hiatus from swimming had made him stronger. The talent was still there, but now so was wisdom, maturity and an ability to harness anxiety and use it as a focus. He had been to the top and also the bottom, and had come out of it all feeling like he’d truly found himself.
“It’s a pretty cool story,” he says.
If you want to know exactly what happened to Anthony Ervin after Sydney, you should read his book, Chasing Water: Elegy Of An Olympian. The book, which he co-wrote with another Imagine instructor, the writer Constantine Markides, is one of the most honest athlete biographies you’ll ever read. Chasing Water is Ervin’s story, unvarnished. There’s sex, drugs, reckless motorcycle riding, various stints in bands, and even a suicide attempt where he swallowed an entire bottle of the medicine he is prescribed to moderate his Tourette’s syndrome. Not every period is disruptive, however; Ervin dived headlong into Buddhism and meditation, went in search of understanding about his African-American heritage – his father is black; his mother Jewish – and even auctioned his 2000 Olympic gold medal to raise money for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
“A big part of the book is the rejection of, and resistance to, authority and power and control,” says Ervin, walking the empty boardwalk along New York City’s Rockaway Beach the day after speaking to the swimming groups.
Cherry-picking anecdotes from Ervin’s narrative can be misleading. Stories about his comeback this summer typically referenced drugs, drinking and suicide – not unfairly, because all these things were true – but they’re less menacing inside the whole of his story.
“It may have seemed impulsive when I got into a thing but followed through on that thing for a while,” he says. “Like the motorcycle – I was riding for hours and hours a day for months on end. Or when I started doing music – I was playing all the time. [Whatever it was] I tried to get enveloped by it. It may seem to the spectator that it was impulsive… but for me it wasn’t. I was looking for something until I found what it was.”
None of these things, he believes, were a waste of his time. In every new obsession, he found some truth and incorporated that into his life, making himself a better person for having done it.
Take meditation: Ervin no longer meditates as a practice, but he learned and absorbed the process, so that he can call upon it when needed. This is the art of “being self-aware instead of being led along by the senses of your environment”, he says. “Be aware of them. Don’t reject them, but be very conscious of them.”
The previous night at the pool, a kid had asked him about being scared in the moments before a race, and Ervin’s reply was that, sure, he feels anxious, and that’s the important thing: he feels it. Even the world’s best athletes can be overcome by anxiety, to the extent that it hampers their ability to perform at the highest level.
And that used to happen to Ervin, too, until meditation taught him to recognise negative emotions, hold them up to a light and move them aside. There’s a koan [Zen paradox] he likes: “The thoughts come. You can’t stop the thoughts from coming.”
Zen taught him that an empty mind is a fleeting thing: no one can sustain it. “You may have gaps where there’s absolutely nothing [in your mind],” he says. “Inevitably it rains, and the water comes, and it flows over the rock.” Rather than fixating on a thought, you recognise it, take it in, then breathe out and just let it go. That’s how you deal with nerves.
Ervin felt the first itches when his friend Erik Vendt, a silver medallist at the 2004 Games, left Imagine to train for Beijing in 2008. He joined the club’s Masters team and raced against a clock for the first time in five years. He was faster than he’d expected, but it felt weird. “More than anything, I didn’t fully understand why I would be doing it,” he explains. “It was just trying to get control. Trying to get my body back.”
Ervin saw his kids’ love of swimming and that in turn helped him rediscover his passion, too. He realised that what he liked about swimming was the same thing he liked about music, about meditation, about hallucinogenic drugs. “There’s a certain self-absorption that you don’t really have in other sports,” he says. “The senses drip away.”
Ervin didn’t commit to a comeback. He worked in the pool, but he also played in bands and went out a lot, often wearing a trenchcoat and eyeliner. He was still smoking, both cigarettes and pot.
In 2010, Ervin moved back to California with a girlfriend, completed the last few credits of his bachelor’s degree and enrolled in grad school.
He still wasn’t training per se, but he wasn’t not training either. Ervin was somewhere in the middle when he watched the University of California team win the 4x100m Freestyle Relay at the National Championships in March 2011 and it hit him: “I want to be part of this energy. I want to race again.”
The following summer, Ervin was once again an Olympian. At the London 2012 Games, not even two years after returning from nine years of “doing absolutely nothing”, he finished fifth. That alone blew minds. But Ervin wasn’t done. He decided to train for Rio the second he left the pool in London: “I knew that I could be so much better.”
But he was also 31. By the time the Rio Olympics began, Ervin would be 35 – five years older than anyone who’d ever won an individual gold medal in swimming.
He would have to train like athletes 10 or even 15 years younger while overcoming his own aging body. But he had an edge: his mind. “Young people can bounce back really well,” he explains, “but what they don’t necessarily account for is emotional and mental energy. They have a lot more energy to work with, but a lot of that time is used frivolously.” An older man understands his body better – and his mind doesn’t work against him.
Ervin felt none of the distractions that had plagued him as a young swimmer; he enjoyed training and didn’t have to argue with himself every morning about getting up for practice. Most days, he woke early, before his alarm, and had plenty of time to eat breakfast.
Being a veteran of two Olympics, Ervin knew he had many advantages in Rio. The young guys, he says, tend to be terrified; they get distracted. He knew what the regimen would be like. He knew how little personal space he’d have. He knew the food in the athletes’ cafeteria would be terrible.
Ervin was expected to swim in the 50m and the 4x100m Freestyle Relay.
The Distance Between
Anthony Ervin’s path to Olympic success – and the journey back
1981: Born in Valencia, California. Takes to the backyard pool at an early age
March 2000: Skinnier than his rivals, Ervin wins the 50m and 100m Freestyle at the NCAA Championships as a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley
Sept 2000: At the Sydney Olympics, the 19-year-old takes gold in the 50m, tying with freestyle legend Gary Hall Jr, and silver in the Men’s 4x100m Relay
2001: Wins two golds – 50m and 100m Freestyle – at the World Aquatics Championships in Japan, but his motivation begins to flag as his appetite for partying increases
2003: Fails to make the semi-finals of the 50m Freestyle at the World Aquatics Championships in Spain. Retires from the world of swimming age 22
2005: Auctions off his Olympic gold medal on eBay and donates the proceeds – $17,100 – to UNICEF’s tsunami relief fund following the devastation in Indonesia
2006-2009: Works as a swimming instructor in New York, but spends most of his time trying to make it as a musician and experimenting with psychedelics
2010: While on a graduate programme at Berkeley, he quits smoking and gets back into the pool
2012: Finishes fifth in the 50m Freestyle at the Olympics in London
2016: Wins gold in the 50m Freestyle at the Games in Rio, becoming the oldest individual gold-medal winner in swimming
But the night before the semi-final of the latter, the coaches told him they were swapping in a younger swimmer. “A very fast, sharp depression came on,” he recalls. In previous years, the funk would have ruined him, but Ervin let the thoughts come and began to work through them. The night before the 50m final, his godmother called.
The coaches’ decision might be wrong, she told him, but it was over, and his Olympics weren’t. To wallow was hurting “all the people that I actually was doing this for. My family and my friends did not want to see me swim when I wasn’t present. I’m a freestyle swimmer – I’ve got to swim free.”
He’ll never forget what she said at the end. “She told me that these coaches are concerned with greatness, not goodness. And all greatness fades. All empires eventually crumble. But if you’re good to people, that endures from life to life. She reminded me that I’ve been down and up a lot of times, and when I was down, it was the good people who helped me up. When she helped me rediscover that, the weight that I had been carrying around lifted and I was free.”
For the 50m final, Ervin drew lane three, directly between defending Olympic champion Flo Manaudou and Ben Proud, a young Brit and a rising star. These were arguably the two fastest starters in the world sandwiching a guy famous for his slow starts. “Two years ago, I would have panicked and been like, ‘I’m going to see them ahead of me and I’m going to buckle under that pressure right from the get-go,’ ” he says.
“This time, I was like, ‘All right, they’re going to dive in, and their wave is going to lift me up and push me forward.’ ”
Something else Ervin told the kids at the pool is that it’s easier to get to the top than to remain there. Getting there, he said, is a naïve mission: you’re blind to everything except the drive to be the best. But once you reach the top, you’re suddenly aware of the hundreds of swimmers who want to be where you are – where he is, again, right now.
Ervin does not discount this as a factor in what happens next year, and for however long he keeps swimming. He has always tried to do one thing above all others: just be himself. “I know that I’m looked at and gazed upon with much more force now than I was before,” he says. “While I don’t want that to change me, inevitably it does. I hope the change is more of a polish than me becoming something I don’t want to be.”
This time, he’s not rejecting the success: he’s proud of the medal, and of the first one, too. Someday, he thinks, he might buy it back.
Ervin has neither committed to, nor ruled out, trying for a fourth Olympics – in Tokyo – in 2020. He would be 39. He fully expects a new generation to rise up and usurp him, and he knows that in all likelihood he won’t be able to cheat time and beat them all again.
But that’s fine: the target has shifted. “My definitive goal would be to make sure I’m in the finals at the Olympic trials,” Ervin says. “Just to show I’m still f–king good.”