Float the idea of retirement by Anthony Ervin and the soon-to-be 36-year-old churns right past it.
Been there, done that at age 22. After reclaiming the title of “Fastest Swimmer in the World” last summer, he’s in no rush to retire again.
"I can’t quit on top,” said Ervin, whose birthday is May 26. “At a bare minimum, I need to make sure that the next gen of American sprinters goes through me – (they have to) take me down on their way to the top.”
They couldn’t last summer.
Ervin pulled off the stunning feat of capturing the gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 with a time of 21.40 seconds. He became the oldest swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal, coincidentally the same year he started getting his first gray hairs.
Ervin is also the only swimmer to win gold medals in the same event 16 years apart, going from boy wonder – tying Gary Hall Jr., for the gold at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 – to 30-something sensation.
This summer Ervin has his sights on the 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, with the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in his peripheral vision. He’ll be 39 at the next Olympics, which would be his fourth.
“It’s not a concrete formed plan yet or anything like that,” said Ervin, who launched his comeback in 2011. “I’m going to take my time until the 2020 season comes about. You always kind of take a year at a time.”
At the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Atlanta last weekend, Ervin was nearly twice as old as the winner of the 50-meter freestyle. Michael Andrew, who turned 18 on April 18, won the “A” final with a time of 22.38 seconds, while Ervin won the “B” final in 22.81 (which would have been good enough for sixth place in Andrew’s race). He also competed in the 100-meter freestyle, winning the “C” final in 51.21 seconds.
Ervin said he admires his rivals for being “hungry” and “super fast.” “That’s why I feel old,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, when I was younger, I was kind of like that, too.’”
But while Ervin may not be young, the season still is. The pivotal meet is the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships in Indianapolis from June 27-July 1, which determines the world team.
For now, swimming has taken a backseat to “catching up on some of those priorities that I put a hold on last year,” Ervin said, “and there are a lot of them.”
That includes spending time with friends and family. In Rio, Ervin revealed that he had a newborn daughter he had not yet met. Soon after the Games, he held her in his arms for the first time and she is now 10 months old and nearly walking.
“When I knew I was going to be a father, a part of me, the Peter Pan side of me, fell over dead,” Ervin said.
That left the responsible side standing. “There is a sense that you’re pouring your life force into them,” he said. “That you’re not as concerned with yourself in the same way that you used to be.
“It changes you completely. It’s still so very new. All I know is that I’m just filled with massive love and I don’t do a lot of thinking when I’m there.”
Ervin sees his daughter when he can, but estimates he’s spent 75 percent of his time on the road from Rio, making appearances, giving talks and teaching at pools.
“It’s just airport to airport,” said Ervin, who squeezes in workouts where he can. “I’ve been trying to get out there and tell the tale as much as I can, because I know that the window for that is pretty small. It’s a max four years and really this year is when it can burn hottest.”
He was invited to speak last month at the famous 92nd Street Y in New York City with Constantine Markides, the co-author of his memoir “Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian,” which came out in the spring of 2016.
In the book, Ervin chronicles a journey described as “part spiritual quest, part self-destructive bender,” which included a suicide attempt, tattoo parlors and rock ‘n’ roll.
He said some people have told him that they see themselves in his story, and response to the book has “generally been good. I read a few bad reviews, but no one’s come to my face to tell me how much they didn’t like book, so I’ll count that as a win.”
After his breakthrough in Sydney, where he was the first African-American swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal, Ervin won both the 50 free and 100 free at the 2001 world championships and cemented his status as top sprinter in the world. His retirement in 2003 came as a surprise, and the next time Ervin attracted headlines came in 2004 when he auctioned his gold medal on eBay to benefit tsunami relief.
“There was quite the confluence of pressures that allowed me to muster that effort in Rio,” Ervin said, “and certainly the idea that there is a gold medal of mine out there, I was making another opportunity for one to come back to me.”
He also has a gold from swimming the preliminaries of the 4x100-meter freestyle in Rio for good measure (and a silver from the Sydney relay), and has no plans to auction them off.
Ervin said he never thinks of “what might have been” had he not retired.
“Other people try to do that for me and I learned too quickly block it out,” he said. “What could have been? Who knows? It doesn’t really matter. Not to me. Perhaps, if anything my story can be one to be learned from or perhaps be a cautionary tale. There are definitely some choices I made that there’s no way I’d make them now.
“And if saw somebody on a similar path, I’d try to school them so they can learn what I learned through experience.”
He definitely doesn’t see it as lost time. “That was my most valuable time in a lot of ways,” Ervin said. “Granted, certain parts of life continue to develop and get better as you get older. It’s not all just constant attrition being wasted on the young and then you’re just old and feeble.”
Ervin added that it “took a certain courage to go down that route. I did have a lot of lucky breaks and I did have a lot of great people that propped me up when I needed help.”
While the 20s are often peak years for a swimmer, on the flip side Ervin’s body had less wear and tear when he returned to the competitive pool.
“The body is like an engine,” he said. “And people who I competed with in college who were still doing it in London had considerably more miles on their body than I did. There’s a tax that takes place spiritually and mentally on you, too, when you stay in this for a long time and keep trying to chase and pursue this thing that seems to be ever in front of you.”
What’s his engine like now? Ervin smiled. “Oh, it’s dilapidated. It’s beat-up, broke down. Replaceable parts. There’s a huge difference between my body now and four years ago.”
Yet he knows that with a tune-up and the return to a disciplined practice schedule, he can have the motor humming again.
“There are physiological realities that I have to contend with,” Ervin said. “It would be hard to believe that I would be almost 40 and be better than I have been. That’s a tall order. And it becomes all-consuming. There becomes less time to worry about the rest of your life. I don’t know if I can be that unfair to my family any more for four full years. But we’ll see. It doesn’t take more than a year to get to 95 percent of what you’ve ever been.
“Of course, to be 103 percent of what you’ve ever been, to find a way to actually improve? That’s what requires many years, but it doesn’t take that long to get to where you’ve been before.”
Ervin now has the required mindset to compensate.
“For whatever my age was in London,” said Ervin, who was then 31 and did not medal, “I lacked a certain amount of experience that gives you the necessary confidence to take on something like the Olympic Games full bore, to block out the chaff of the glitz, the bedazzling lights and the social pressures that come about. So I still had a lot to learn about that, and at the same time, I still knew that I could be a faster swimmer. There was one year and I was like, ‘I’m just going to go for it all the way.’
“I went from just being a grad student… to just like international playboy status: flying around, competing, just working on the craft.”
Ervin could follow the same blueprint this quadrennial, but said, “Why would I do the same thing I had just done again? I’ve never done that. It has to be different. It has to evolve some way.”
His body art certainly continues to evolve. Ervin’s arms are covered in tattoos and he has new ink on his back, all visible as his body slices through the water.
His legs still have plenty of room for new designs.
“Hopefully we’ll eventually suit up everything,” Ervin said. “I’ll probably laser off my hand tattoos when I retire from swimming, and have no neck tattoos, so when I’m wearing a (business) suit, I’ll look like anybody else.”
After all, he said one career path could be as a company man – “the company of swimming as an idea."
“Suffice to say, I’m still a young man and there’s a variety of career options ahead of me," said Ervin, who is mulling a project he's not yet ready to divulge. “Competitions in the pool, my relevance on the national level and international level, that moon is certainly waning.”
But he has a challenge for anyone seeking to outshine him.
“The young guys have to come and get me.”