Swim FreeThere 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, small and dimly lit, is where it all began. Anthony Ervin was basically lost in 2006 when he scrounged up 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.
An old friend who swam 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, and Ervin decided: What do I have to lose? I may as well try New York. So, six years after winning a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the Sydney Olympics as a college freshman, Ervin packed up his guitar, flew east and began to teach 5-year-olds how to doggie paddle.
“I spent a lot of time here,” Ervin says, as he slumps 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 medalist at 50 meters—the fastest swimmer on Earth—16 years after he won gold the first time.
Ervin’s eyes are red. His lids sag. He is fighting a cold and just off a flight from Brazil, where he entered and won a made-for-spectators race, then caught a 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’d told Anthony Ervin at 24 or 27 that he’d ever go back to the Olympics, let alone win, he’d have laughed in your face. Even after he moved to New York and started teaching, he 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 eight-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 focus. He had been to the top and also the bottom and came 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. The book, which he wrote with another Imagine instructor, the writer Constantine Markides, is one of the most honest athlete biographies you’ll ever read. It is Ervin’s story, unvarnished. There is sex, drugs, reckless motorcycle riding, various stints in bands and even a suicide attempt, in which he swallowed an entire bottle of the prescription medicine he’s supposed to take to moderate his Tourette’s syndrome. Not every period is disruptive. He dove headlong into Buddhism and meditation, went in search of understanding about his African-American heritage—Ervin’s father is black; his mother is Jewish—and even auctioned off his 2000 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,” Ervin says, walking the empty boardwalk along New York City’s Rockaway Beach the day after speaking to the swim students.
Cherry-picking anecdotes out of Ervin’s narrative can be misleading. Stories about his comeback this summer typically referenced drugs, drinking, suicide—not unfairly, because all of 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 I followed through on that thing for a while,” he says. “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 wastes of his time. In every new obsession he found some truth and incorporated that into his life, making him 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 recognize negative emotions, hold them up to a light and move them aside. There’s a koan 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 recognize 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 medalist at the 2004 Games, left Imagine to train for Beijing in 2008. Ervin joined the club’s Masters team and raced against a clock for the first time in five years. He was faster than he thought he’d be 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 watched his kids love swimming and that in turn helped him rediscover the love, too. He realized 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.”
He 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 there in the middle when he watched Cal’s team win the 4x100 freestyle national championship in March 2011 and it hit him: “I want to be part of this energy. I want to race again.”
The next summer Ervin was once again an Olympian. In London, not even two years after returning from eight 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’d have to motivate and 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 frivolously used.” An older man understands his body better—and his mind doesn’t work against him.
Ervin felt none of the distractions that 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 up early—before his alarm—and had plenty of time to eat breakfast.
Being a veteran of two other 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 athlete cafeteria would be terrible.
Ervin was expected to swim both the 50 and the 4x100-meter freestyle relay.
The Distance Between
Anthony Ervin’s path to Olympic success—and the long journey back
1981: Born in Valencia, California; takes to the backyard pool at an early age.
2000: Wins both the 50 m and 100 m freestyles at the NCAA Championships as a skinny, 19-year-old freshman at UC Berkeley. (Earns five more NCAA titles before dropping out in 2003.)
Summer 2000: Qualifies for the Sydney Olympics while still a teenager; wins his first gold medal in the 50 m free, tying with freestyle legend Gary Hall Jr.; also wins silver as part of the men’s 4x100 relay.
2001: Takes gold in the 50 m and 100 m at the World Aquatics Championships in Japan, but his motivation begins to flag as his appetite for partying increases.
2003: Fails to make the semifinals of the 50 m at World Aquatics Championships in Spain; retires at age 22.
2005: Auctions off his Sydney gold medal on eBay; donates the $17,100 it fetches to the UNICEF Tsunami Relief Fund following the devastation in Indonesia.
2006-2009: Works as a swim instructor in New York but spends most of his time trying to make it as a musician and experimenting with psychedelics.
2010: While studying at a graduate program at Berkeley, quits smoking and gets back into the pool.
2012: Finishes fifth in the 50 m at the Olympic Games in London.
2016: Wins gold in the 50 m at the Olympic Games in Rio, becoming the oldest individual gold-medal winner in swimming at age 35.
But the night before the relay semifinal, the coaches told him they were swapping in a younger swimmer. “A very fast, sharp depression came on,” he recalls. In years past the funk would have ruined him. But Ervin let the thoughts come and began to work through them. The night before the 50-meter 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 50 final, Ervin drew lane 3, directly between Flo Manaudou, the defending Olympic champion, 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 naive 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.
He 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 am looked at and gazed upon with much more force now than I was before. 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 that 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 2020, in Toyko. He would be 39. He fully expects a new generation to rise up and usurp him and knows that in all likelihood he won’t be able to cheat time and beat them all again.
And that’s fine: The target moves. “My definitive goal would be to make sure I’m in the finals at Olympic trials,” Ervin says. “Just to show that I’m still f*cking good.”