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Back in His Element

June 13, 2012
by Gabriel Baumgaertner
Olympian Anthony Ervin

Once a prodigy, Olympian Anthony Ervin is now the Prodigal Son returned.

Anthony Ervin sits in the stands at the Spieker Aquatics Complex and gazes through the dark lenses of his Ray-Bans. At 31, he scarcely resembles the fresh-faced kid who set a world record then won gold and silver in swimming at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. He was just 19, and seemed destined to win more Olympic medals.

But just months after completing his athletic eligibility at Cal, Ervin withdrew his name from the U.S. Olympic Trials for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens and left school a semester shy of graduation. A year later he could be found working at a Berkeley tattoo parlor and playing guitar with a band called Weapons of Mass Destruction. Eventually he moved to New York City, where he taught swimming and toiled as a bookkeeper. One thing he didn’t do was swim—at least, not competitively.

Now, almost a decade after walking away from it all, Ervin is back—back at Cal and back in the pool, training for the U.S. Olympic Trials in June. In December he won the 100-meter freestyle at the 2011 Chesapeake Elite Pro-Am in Oklahoma City and set the swimming world alight with rumors of a comeback. Asked about that, Ervin, sporting a fedora and a five-o’clock shadow, his arms sleeved in tattoos, bristles slightly at the word choice.

“I never really called it a comeback, first of all,” he says, “I just left sport behind a number of years ago.”

Ervin confesses he wasn’t leading the healthiest life in his time away. “It was like a normal person’s lifestyle … never exercising, smoking, drinking, like so many Americans.” Of course, when he quit swimming, a “normal person’s lifestyle” was what he was yearning for.

“You have to strip away every extracurricular [activity] to be a swimmer. Even in high school, I was always thinking about what I was giving up. Even when I got to college, even after accomplishing my goals, I was thinking about what I was not doing.” It bothered him that he couldn’t join a band without fitting guitar practice in between workouts, and that he couldn’t get a tattoo without staying out of the water for two weeks.

“[I wanted] to have no necessary obligations other than to myself and often to pleasure,” he says of his time as a nonathlete. “I was allowed to be young.”

Ervin likes to talk, but he’s careful about what he shares with reporters. Unlike most star athletes, who tend to hide behind clichés, his responses are serious and cerebral, if also rambling and vague. In the end, the images inked on his arms may be more revealing. Pointing to an elaborate phoenix running up his right forearm, he says, “It’s not even finished yet. It represents a cycle of destruction and rebirth. Read into that what you will. I certainly do.”

No matter how far Ervin’s life drifted from the lanes and laps of his youth, his identity was still defined by success in the pool, by the records set and the medals won. So, in 2005, Ervin shed the most potent symbol of that success; he auctioned his gold medal on eBay and donated the proceeds—all $17,100—to tsunami relief in the wake of the Indian Ocean earthquake.

“I was in a mystic phase,” Ervin says now of the overtly symbolic act, adding cryptic references to “destructive water,” his own “pride in water,” and a “state of disownership.” Ultimately, he says, he was trying to enter a new life: “Same guy. Same name. Totally different world.”

He may have it backward; maybe it’s same world, different guy. After all, Ervin is back in Berkeley—and not just at the Aquatics Complex. He returned to classes in 2007, completing an English degree in 2010. A lifelong learner with ambitions to teach—Ervin coached youth swim teams in both New York and Oakland during his time off—he is now pursuing his graduate degree in Sport, Culture, and Education.

Ervin’s graduate adviser is Professor Derek Van Rheenen ’86, M.A. ’93, Ph.D. ’97, a former Cal soccer standout who runs the Athletic Study Center, a degree completion program for former Cal athletes. Of his advisee, Van Rheenen observes, “He goes so far the other way to where he doesn’t even acknowledge his success. It’s almost as if he’s embarrassed.” Van Rheenen wants his student to put athletic success in proper perspective. “Winning a gold medal is not the end-all-be-all, but it is still a great feat.”

For his part, Ervin credits his adviser with spawning his return to competition. For the final assignment in a course called Sport and Society, students were required to write about their relationship to sports, applying insights from the coursework to their own lives. Ervin admits he was reluctant at first, but eventually he started writing. Before he knew it, he had 50 pages. The experience was cathartic.

“I was carrying around a chip on my shoulder that I had never fully understood,” he says. Once he was forced to come to terms with it, he instantly began to change. Over the Christmas break he quit smoking and started running. After the break, he approached Cal women’s swimming coach Teri McKeever, and asked if he could start “swimming with the girls.”

McKeever was happy to accommodate, allowing him to train with the women until he could gain back his strength and confidence. Then, last February, during a dual meet against Stanford, McKeever suggested the former Olympian do an exhibition swim for the fans. For Ervin, it was like coming home to family. “This was me being in the environment of people committing their bodies to sport,” he says.

Swimming is an individual sport, but Ervin stresses the “team element and a vibe of unity” that resonated for him even in college. After his gold in Sydney, he turned down pro endorsements and prize money to finish out his eligibility.

“I wasn’t ready to be a professional,” he explains, looking back. “I didn’t even like swimming that much…. I think a lot of my team felt I was foolish for not going pro, but I couldn’t see myself doing anything at all outside of them as a team.”

Ervin is now training rigorously and competing in national meets in preparation for the trials in Omaha. There he’ll face stiff competition for an Olympic berth, most notably from his fellow Cal alum and good friend Nathan Adrian, the man to beat in both the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events. But Ervin is within striking distance. He swam the 50 free in 22.24 seconds in March, the second fastest time logged by an American this year. Not bad for someone who only started training about 16 months ago.

But then, he always was a natural.

“He was the fastest and most talented swimmer that I ever swam with,” former Cal swim team captain Joe Bruckart says of his old relay mate. He notes that Ervin was never the “first one in and last one out” at practices, but it hardly mattered at meets. “We just knew that when Anthony was on the block, he was going to make a move if we were behind, or bury the other team if we were ahead. In terms of pure speed, I have seen nobody even come close.”

Whether that speed can be recaptured remains to be seen. But for now, Ervin appears to have recaptured his love of swimming—something he says he couldn’t have done if he hadn’t left the sport behind him for a while. “A big part of my growth and coming-of-age was to see the world more objectively and less specifically as a swimmer. Now that I know what is outside of the pool, I truly do love and appreciate what it is like to be in it. You can’t appreciate the light until you dwell in the dark.”

Light and dark. Destruction and rebirth. Like the tattoo on his arm, Anthony Ervin’s journey in the pool remains unfinished. Read into it what you will.

Gabriel Baumgaertner ’11 is an intern at Sports Illustrated. He previously interned at California and was the sports editor at The Daily Californian.
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