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For Olympic Swimmer Anthony Ervin, Voyage Of Self-Discovery Is A Long, Strange Trip

By Philip Hersh | Aug. 01, 2016, 12:56 p.m. (ET)

Anthony Ervin (R) congratulates Bruno Giuseppefratus of Brazil after the men's 50-meter freestyle at the FINA Swimming World Cup 2015 at the Hamdan Sports Complex Nov. 7, 2015 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The words from the Grateful Dead song, “Truckin,” are quoted so frequently they almost have become a cliché.

Yet they still are perfect for certain situations.

And one such use is to sum up the picaresque journey of Anthony Ervin, whose first 35 years on earth have indeed been, as the song goes, “a long, strange, trip.”

That’s in all senses of the word “trip,” as Ervin makes abundantly clear in his compelling, sometimes stream-of-conscious new memoir, “Chasing Water.”

The book’s subtitle is “Elegy of an Olympian.”

An elegy is a lament.

But the place in which Ervin finds himself now – and in the final pages of the book, which takes him through 2012 – is something to celebrate.

And so what if Ervin has no idea what the next step will be after he swims in the 2016 Olympics. After all, this is a guy who says, “I have no home other than where I rest my head.”

The future will likely be another episode on his personal discovery channel.

“Self-acceptance and self-knowledge is continually what living is for me,” he said.

Forget trying to figure out his identity from the labels that have been pinned on him for his heritage, age, years of rebellious and often self-destructive behavior, shoulder-to-wrist tattoos on both arms and ability to cut through the water like a knife. To all that, Ervin responds with the title of an Arctic Monkeys album: “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.”

Still, it is possible to pin down a few things he is – and those he isn’t any longer.

He is a blue-eyed, light-skinned Californian who would be known as the first African-American to make a U.S. Olympic swimming team. He is part black, part Native American, part Italian, part Jewish. In the book, Ervin says his family celebrates Christmas, not Chanukah. In 2001, he was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

“The fiber of what he is,” said his current coach, David Marsh of SwimMAC Carolina, “is this giving, loving, compassionate, intellectual, very interesting person that has seen way more of life on an intellectual side – and on literally the streets – than just about anybody his age. And he is certainly not the version of what we see typically in our sport, which is usually middle upper income Caucasian.”

He was the hell-bent-for-leather, motorcycle riding, cigarette-smoking, booze-guzzling, sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll slacker dude. The book details his years wasted on such indulgences of biblical proportions and the transformation beginning in 2011 that led him to put away all those childish things, fall back in love with swimming and grow into manhood.

Eleven years after entering Cal-Berkeley, Ervin got his undergraduate degree as an English major. He now is working on a master’s in education, for which his thesis is to be on the athlete as activist, focusing on Muhammad Ali.

Ervin is the 2000 Olympic champion in the 50-meter freestyle (whom he calls Version 1.0) and silver medalist in the 4x100-meter free who returned after seven years away from the sport to make his second Olympic team in 2012 (Version 2.0), finishing fifth in the 50. He kept at it with no break after the London Games and made a third Olympic team last month by finishing second in the 50 and fourth in the 100 freestyle at the U.S. trials, putting him in the individual event and the athlete pool for the 4x100 free.

Of course, it hasn’t been a completely straightforward process. After what he called an “abysmal” performance at the 2015 world championships, where he failed to make the 50 final and his slow swim in the free relay’s prelims was key to the failure to make that final, Ervin left Berkeley last fall to train with Dave Salo in Los Angeles. When that didn’t work out, he left in March to train with Marsh, also women’s head coach of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team.

“The best thing for me to do was to move on so I finish my career in a place where I was happy and resonating more with who I am,” Ervin said.

“I think he is better now than maybe at any point in his career,” Marsh said.

Maybe that’s why Ervin isn’t satisfied with just being the second-oldest U.S. Olympic men’s swimmer since 1904. (Oldest ever from the U.S.: Jason Lezak, 36, in 2012.)

“As soon as I made the team, I wasn’t looking at what I had done, I was looking at what is before me,” Ervin said. “Maybe I made it to base camp, but Everest is still in front of me.”

Marsh has known Ervin since he was head coach at Auburn and unsuccessfully recruited him. Two of Marsh’s former Auburn assistants, Mike Bottom and David Durden, coached Ervin at Cal. The past few years, when he visited his parents near Charlotte, North Carolina, Ervin would train with Marsh.

“When he came full-time, he told us, `I’m not that concerned whether I make the team, I just want to know I gave it a great shot,’’’ Marsh said.

“It’s unfortunate that for most people who spend four years for one meet (the trials) where you have to finish in the top two, it’s life and death. That can handcuff you emotionally. Anthony was able to navigate around that.”

Making the Olympic team for the first time in 2000 put him in the discomfiting position of having USA Swimming push the “first African-American” angle for someone who didn’t look or feel the part. Sixteen years later, he appreciates why that occurred and is proud of it, especially since Maritza Correia, Cullen Jones, Simone Manuel and Lia Neal have followed him as African-American swimming Olympians.

“If I may speak for the sport in general, before any of us of African-American descent made the team, those in leadership were deeply ashamed it hadn’t happened and honestly wanted it to, so they supported whoever seemed to be the most likely,” Ervin said.

“Once things started moving, it brought great joy and led to implementing policy to do outreach. Cullen has done an amazing amount of good work pushing the idea and the brand of the black swimmer.”

Ervin went on from his Olympic 50 gold in 2000 – shared with U.S. teammate Gary Hall Jr. – to win both the 50 and the 100 at the 2001 world championships. By the next worlds two years later, he had begun to drift out of the sport and into a life of drifting wherever an ill wind took him.

“Almost every young person has an inner version of that whether they act on it or talk about it or not,” Marsh said. “What’s different about Anthony is he’s an open book, no pun intended.”

In the book and the 2012 Rolling Stone story that is the book’s genesis, a guy who took medicine to cope with Tourette’s syndrome tells of getting out of control with psychedelic drugs. He tried to kill himself with an overdose. He played guitar in a band, rode his motorcycle into a high-speed chase with police, went broke and auctioned off his gold medal – with the proceeds going to victims of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.

Ervin would teach swimming off and on to make money. He liked being around kids. But he kept drifting even after re-enrolling at Cal in 2007. Writing an autobiographical essay during his first semester of grad school gave Ervin a clearer sense of purpose. After finishing its last sentence, he quit smoking cigarettes and returned to the pool to get back into shape physically and mentally.

His skill was tarnished by disuse, but not rusted out.

“He has an incredible efficiency,” Marsh said, “with technique as good as I’ve ever seen in sprint freestyle. He cuts the water like a barracuda and doesn’t incur the same resistance his competitors do. Water slips around him, so he doesn’t have to power through it.”

The next thing Ervin knew, he was on another Olympic team. Since then, he has been all in, setting a personal best for the 50 at the 2013 worlds, struggling last season, making him more determined than frustrated.

“Part of the appeal of having made it to London was being able to tap into some of the opportunities that being a high-caliber Olympic athlete offers,” he said.

“When I was younger, I was blind to those opportunities. I was so concerned with who I was and the cognitive dissonance between who I thought I was supposed to be.”

And who was he supposed to be?

“Beats me,” he said. “Whatever I seemed to be wasn’t it.”

Who knows what the world at large makes of Ervin. The story in 2000 was about breaking a color barrier. The story in 2012 was about a form of redemption. The story four years later is about his age.

“I’m always torn between trying to at least being able to steer what the public perception is of my public image is versus who I know I am in my personal space,” Ervin said. “I don’t know what people think…and I’ve relinquished trying to understand what my public image is. Nothing about it has aggravated me to the point of being sick.”

After London, he came to terms with having a big piece of himself defined by swimming. He swam in world cups, did clinics around the world, became an official USA Swimming mentor to members of the junior national team. Jack Roach, then in charge of the program, trusted Ervin to be with the teenagers on trips overseas.

“Jack saw in Anthony what so many young people need to hear sooner than later – perspective, process, forgiveness of your mistakes, things Anthony had to live out,” Marsh said. “Anthony’s willingness to pass that on is phenomenal. A lot of people wouldn’t be willing to invest in that role the way he has.”

The wild-child-turned-sage is just one of the dissonances Marsh sees in Ervin.

“There is a complacency about him you would see in his graceful manner, but an eagerness in the way he goes about his swimming, all happening at the same time,” Marsh said. “In a quiet way, he is an aggressive competitor always looking for an edge and the next way to make an improvement.”

Over the last four years, he has gotten stronger than ever by combining a “Rocky Balboa-style” conditioning program (climbing mountains, rugby throws on the sand, rusted barbells in the driveway) designed by a personal trainer Jeff Natalizio, a former Cal swimmer, and a more “high-tech” one designed by Nick Folker, an Olympic swimmer for South Africa and former strength and conditioning coach for the Cal swim team.

In the last few months, Marsh has focused on improving Ervin’s start, long a weak point – and especially problematic in the sprints.

“He still isn’t starting ahead, but at least he is with the group,” Marsh said.

Until he can no longer keep up with the group the whole way, Ervin intends to keep competing. How far that takes him beyond Rio will depend largely on how long his body can handle it. No matter what, he intends to stay involved with his sport and the Olympics.

“Being on the policy end, doing advocacy for athletes, that is of great interest to me,” Ervin said.

First, though, comes another step on his long, strange Olympic trip. Who could have ever imagined it lasting 16 years, especially since no U.S. swimmer ever had made another Olympic team with even a 12-year gap between appearances, as he did in 2012.

Anthony Ervin just keeps truckin’ on.

Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.

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