RIO DE JANEIRO – Sixteen years after a 19-year-old Anthony Ervin tied for the gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, the American had the 50-meter freestyle all to himself Friday night in Rio.
At the ancient swimming age of 35 years old.
Ervin, who left the sport for eight years, won the sport’s most furious race by the slimmest of margins, capturing the 50 free over defending Olympic gold medalist and two-time reigning world champion Florent Manaudou and countryman Nathan Adrian.
Ervin, goggles tilted up to the scoreboard, leapt out of the pool, flexing his arms and roaring at the crowd inside the Olympic Aquatics Stadium. He was the 50 free champ once again, 16 years after tying Gary Hall, Jr., for gold in Sydney. This moment was his.
The victory made Ervin the oldest swimmer ever to win an Olympic gold medal, replacing the legendary Michael Phelps, who had taken that title earlier this week.
At 35 years, two months and 17 days, he’s the oldest member of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team.
“It’s amazing to see him come away with the gold,” offered Katie Ledecky, who came away with gold of her own on Friday night. “Who does that… Winning 16 years apart? I can’t even do the math. I’ll be happy if I’m even swimming at that point in my life.”
Ervin flew to a 21.40, touching just ahead of 2012 Olympic champ Manaudou, of France, who won silver with a 21.41. Adrian hit the wall at 21.49.
That 21.40 was 0.58 faster than the gold-medal tying race that Ervin and Hall swam in 2000, a 21.98 winning in Sydney.
As he climbed out of the pool, his name boomed over the loudspeaker, and Ervin turned to wave to the crowd, his arms above his head and a smile spreading across his face.
Ervin stopped swimming in 2003 and returned to the sport in 2011. He qualified for the London 2012 Games and placed fifth in the 50 free. The decision to keep going was one he didn’t have to think twice about.
“It was completely unexpected for me to be (in London) at all… It seemed outrageous,” said Ervin. “I just wanted to swim. Making the final of the Olympics, it’s kind of wild. If you think of how few people have achieved that… To keep going was an easy decision for me.”
Last month, while at Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, Ervin wasn’t able to make it home to meet his newborn daughter. His Olympic gold Friday was inspired by her.
“It’s like a thunderbolt,” he said. “I had a daughter born while I was at Olympic Trials. While I had planned on being there for the birth, I couldn’t, and then I got swallowed up in the Olympics. I haven’t had the chance to meet her yet. I tried to send a message to her after my race.”
That message? You can do anything you put your (35-year-old) mind to.
It wasn’t an expected result: Ervin had entered the race tied for the second-fastest time from qualifying at 21.46, while Adrian was a hundredth behind in his qualifying time at 21.47. Manaudou had been the fastest in the world in the world's fastest race most recently. He qualified with the best time this week – a 21.32 – and had won the race at worlds in both 2014 (short course) and 2015.
But as the pack bursts out of the blocks, there was little separating the eight swimmers. Ervin stayed strong throughout, and had the reach that he needed to secure gold – his own gold – 16 years after Sydney. Hall, Jr., went on to win the event in 2004, and no American had captured gold in it since.
Cullen Jones won silver in it behind Manaudou in 2012, the race in which Ervin placed fifth.
Friday night the podium was his alone, however, singing along with the “Star-Spangled Banner” as his emotions overcame him, greeting his family as he walked by gripping a gold medal that only a 19-year-old version of himself had previously held.
“There are a lot of people who have supported me through the highs and the lows,” he said.
The lows have been many: Depression, drug abuse among them. He toyed with a career in music and in the mid-2000s auctioned off his Sydney gold medal to help raise money for the Tsunami relief fund. He said Friday he showed up for his comeback smelling of cigarettes and having a pasty-white tan.
What did all the hard work earn him five years later?
A medal tinted gold.