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Anthony Ervin: Swimming On His Own Terms

By Maura Gladys | Oct. 16, 2012, 6:30 p.m. (ET)

Anthony Ervin in LondonAnthony Ervin of the United States looks on prior to competing in the Men's 50m Freestyle of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre in London, England.

Anthony Ervin has made an inspiring journey, from swimming prodigy to the invisible man to the comeback kid, to, well, there’s no real point in putting any labels on Ervin these days.

For now, he is swimming, he is swimming well, and he is swimming on his own terms. Those statements are not made in haste but instead with the intense precision and thoughtfulness that Ervin puts into all that he does. But Ervin would not be in the position he is without his time at the top, bottom, and return to the top of swimming.

“I’ve been able to completely turn over a new leaf on what swimming is for me, “ Ervin said. “I made the complete nostalgic circle, where now, swimming is a place of tranquility and joy for me.”

Ervin’s story is well-known at this point. After winning a gold medal in the 50m at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, he disappeared from the public eye. He re-emerged in early 2012, quietly performing well at Grand Prix events leading up to Olympic Trials in June. At trials, Ervin swam a 21.60 in the 50m, good enough for second place and a ticket to London.

“I was just hoping to have a great Olympic Trials and put on a good show for everybody who was paying attention,” Ervin said. “That was great, and then making the Olympics was a huge bonus.”

Between Olympic Trials and the Games in London, Ervin began to open up about the time between his first Olympic Games in Sydney and the one he was headed to.

In the August 2 issue of Rolling Stone, Ervin revealed his issues with drugs, alcohol sex, and a suicide attempt. The article was written by Constantine Markides, Ervin’s friend, who pushed him to tell his story.

“I felt like I could come closer to authenticity and presentation of what is problematic material,” Ervin said, about having a friend pen the article. “There are a lot of issues that I have/had, and I didn’t want just whoever to have at it. So, at least I was able to control marginally the context in which I put that out there.”

Some liked it. Some didn’t. Ervin has some choice words for those that didn’t. But he was pleasantly surprised with the amount of people that heard his story…

Ervin swam his way to the finals of the 50m in London, and finished fifth in 21.78. But his biggest takeaway was not landing on the podium…and being okay with it.

“If anything, the most valuable lesson I got from London was the ability to learn that I can do my very, very best, contribute everything that I’ve got, and then not win,” Ervin said. “I never had experienced that before. If I lost before, I always had some kind of excuse, and this time I felt like I gave everything I could, and didn’t end up at the top, and it was just relief.

“Waiting to walk out to the pool, I thought I was walking into such a pity party,” Ervin said. “But everybody was so happy and proud and thrilled. They were just glad they could make that journey with me, and that just really opened up my heart to so much more.”

Ervin is now on the FINA World Cup tour, a series of two-day swim meets, held in a 25-meter pool, compared to the more standard 50-meter pool. He set a personal record in the 50m free in the first meet of the tour in Doha only to best it this past weekend in Stockholm. He’ll race again Wednesday and Thursday in Moscow.

But it’s about more than just times and medals. Ervin is trying to create a new model for professional swimming. There are scarce funds available for swimmers post-Olympic Games. Ervin has developed ideas to supplement his prize money from the World Cup meets and keep his fans engaged. He started an Indiegogo fundraiser and met his goal of $10,000 in little over a week (half of all additional money will go to charity to help provide clean water in developing areas) and offered exclusive designs and giveaways to his fans.

“If I was going to be in a sport, I wanted to be able to contribute something besides just swimming,” he said. “With the current climate in America, there’s not quiet as broad a spectrum of how you operate as a professional swimmer. The national governing body provides some money to those that qualify, and the most coveted thing is an endorsement, and those are fewer and farther between than they’ve ever been. So, I would kind of like to blaze a new kind of trail that hopefully others can follow through on.”

Besides swimming, Ervin is also still pursuing his master’s degree at UC Berkeley and will resume classes next fall. No matter what the next step on his journey is, Ervin will use his past and his relationship with swimming to propel him forward.

“My time away was so important for enriching who I am, how to relate to my niche of culture in America. Now that I’ve done that, it’s so much easier for me to put myself out there.”

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Anthony Ervin