Anthony Ervin reacts to winning the men's 100-meter freestyle during The British Gas International Swimming Meet at John Charles Centre for Sport on March 10, 2013 in Leeds, England.
Anthony Ervin is in his element when he’s teaching kids how to swim.
The Olympic gold medalist who describes himself on his Twitter feed as “Olympic swimmer, educator, rock 'n' roller” appeared Saturday at the Make a Splash Water Safety Festival in Long Beach, California. Now in its sixth year, the Make a Splash Tour is about teaching children water safety through swim lessons and Ervin, along with fellow Olympic champions Janet Evans and Rowdy Gaines, are among the campaign’s top cheerleaders.
Ervin, 33, a USA Swimming Foundation ambassador, credits his work with children for his decision to dive back into the competitive pool. He raced at the London 2012 Olympic Games a dozen years after making his first Olympic Team.
“The main thing was they provided a key to something I had lost,” Ervin said.
While he was winning gold and silver medals at age 19 in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, “I had lost the reason why I had a passion,” Ervin said. “Through teaching the kids, I rediscovered that. That’s play — play in the most liberal sense of the word — just being able to play in the water.”
And if he can also rip through the water faster than anybody else, his famously-tattooed arms a blur as he splashes to the wall, that’s a bonus.
Ervin will be 35 when the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games begin, a year younger than teammate Jason Lezak was in London, but he is swimming faster in his comeback than he did in his breakthrough years.
Ervin posted a personal best of 21.42 seconds last year in the semifinal of the 50-meter freestyle at the 2013 World Championships.
He placed sixth in the final at 21.65, still better than the 21.80 he clocked in 2000 in the semifinals. In the Sydney final, Ervin, the first swimmer of African-American descent to make the U.S. Olympic Team, and his good friend Gary Hall Jr., tied for Olympic gold at 21.98.
The 50 is “just really focused, dense energy,” said Ervin, who finished fifth in London, “a lot of moving parts, just hyper-compact. It’s a lot to keep your mind on, trying to get it done.”
“He’s brilliant at it,” said David Marsh, who coaches the SwimMAC Carolina Elite team in Charlotte, North Carolina, and worked with Ervin when he was visiting his family nearby. “He’s probably the most skilled technical swimmer in the race.
“He has the ability to cut the water like a barracuda.”
Earlier this month, Ervin finished in another tie, this time with 21-year-old Yannick Agnel of France, in the 100-meter freestyle at the Arena Grand Prix at Charlotte.
Ervin had been disappointed with his fourth-place finish in the 50 at the meet, (22.49 seconds, just ahead of Olympic silver medalist Cullen Jones), but was encouraged by his two swims in the 100.
“As competitors, we can live and die by our performances and we only feel as good as our last one,” Ervin said.
He knows the longer event is his ticket onto the 400-meter relay, where he earned silver medals at the 2000 Games and 2013 worlds. Ervin’s split of 47.44 was the fastest among the Team USA swimmers in Barcelona last year.
He’s now off to Europe for the three-meet series known as the Mare Nostrum. Two of the meets are outdoors, which will be “good race rehearsal” for a similar environment in Irvine.
“I’m going to try to race my way into some shape before nationals,” he said of the Aug. 6-10 meet in Irvine, California, that will determine the 2014 Pan Pacific and 2015 World Championships teams.
“It’s important because if I don’t get on the national team this summer, then that’s two years of no major international experience,” Ervin added, “and that’s not how you set up a successful Olympic year.”
He built on his success in 2000 by winning both the 50 and 100 at the 2001 World Championships. But Ervin was burned out two years later, retiring at age 22. He traveled the world, played in bands, and collected experiences as well as tattoos. He sold his gold medal on eBay for more than $17,000, donating the proceeds to tsunami relief.
“It’s nice to have in our sport an eclectic guy like that who has that kind of giving mindset,” said Marsh, who added, “I think he’s had a love-hate relationship with swimming probably for his lifetime, but since he’s come back this round, whether he swims his fastest times in his life or not, he seems the most filled with joy in doing it.”
The joy that Ervin said was subconscious when he was younger bubbled to the surface when he returned to the sport in late 2011.
“It’s been purely about relationships,” he said, “about the people that I work with, be they my peers, my competitors, coaches I’ve had or have, coaches that were once swimmers that I used to race against that are now doing great things. So the joy for me is in the manmade world of swimming.”
There’s also a physical element. “I love training,” he said. “I love working out. It feels good. I like exhausting my body and then getting the recharge from it.”
He’s also pursuing a master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, in sport culture and education.
“Suffice it to say that I am a reformist,” said Ervin, who, along with fellow Cal graduate and Olympic champion Natalie Coughlin, recently was named to the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame Class of 2014.
Ervin only had time for one course in the spring. “I’m not trying to rush through my education,” he said. “As a professional athlete and a public figure, I don’t have the luxury of being able to just study, study, study in isolation, which I think it really requires. But eventually it’ll get done.”
He called the demands and pressures on him “a veritable deluge.”
“It’s been a tour de force and I’m trying to maintain as much control as possible,” Ervin said.
Now that he’s 33, he’s also unwilling to sacrifice his personal life. “Things like family are starting to have a whole new meaning as far as being able to take part in the lives of my nieces who are growing up and for myself, where is that going to go?” he said.
This fall, Ervin plans to make some waves outside of the pool. He and a friend are writing a book about his life and what he is trying to accomplish.
“Hopefully it’ll be complex, entertaining, educational,” Ervin said. “Some people will celebrate it; other people will think I’m a villain for it.”
Why a villain? “Because anything worth actually analyzing has to be a source of conflict.”
Ervin will also add to his body art, which he traditionally does at the end of each season. He says the new tattoos on his arms are not significant or symbolic.
“Just a little bit more paint on the canvas, so to speak,” Ervin said.
And he’s far from finished.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.