How Swimmer Anthony Ervin Faced His Demons to Win Gold in Rio

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This is an excerpt of a feature profile about Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin, two-time gold medalist in the 50-meter freestyle event and someone who has spent his life dealing with depression, Tourette syndrome, and drug abuse. It appears in full today on the Red Bulletin.

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“I spent a lot of time here,” Ervin says, as he slumps back in a folding chair on a deck overlooking the pool on Manhattan’s east side, where a new generation of kids splashes around. His former employer, Imagine Swimming, is now the largest swimming school in New York City. And Ervin, at 35, is once again the Olympic gold medalist at 50 meters — the fastest swimmer on Earth — 16 years after he won the first time.

Since Rio, Ervin has had a total of two days off. Otherwise, he’s just “riding this thing as long as I can,” he says — competing for prize money, taking speaking gigs and doing the paid meet-and-greets afforded to Olympic stars.

If you’d told Anthony Ervin at 24 or 27 that he’d ever go back to the Olympics, let alone win, he’d have laughed in your face. Even after he moved to New York and started teaching, he says, he wasn’t proud of his medal. It felt more like an albatross. “That was not the mantle I wanted to assume,” he says. “I wasn’t comfortable with it.” Ervin was finished with swimming. “But I needed a job.”

If you want to know exactly what happened to Anthony Ervin after Sydney you should read his book, Chasing Water. The book, which he wrote with another Imagine instructor, the writer Constantine Markides, is one of the most honest athlete biographies you’ll ever read. It is Ervin’s story, unvarnished. There is sex, drugs, reckless motorcycle riding, various stints in bands and even a suicide attempt, in which he swallowed an entire bottle of the prescription medicine he’s supposed to take to moderate his Tourette’s syndrome. Not every period is disruptive. He dove headlong into Buddhism and meditation, went in search of understanding about his African-American heritage — Ervin’s father is black; his mother is Jewish — and even auctioned his 2000 gold medal to raise money for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

“A big part of the book is the rejection of and resistance to authority and power and control,” Ervin says, walking the empty boardwalk along New York City’s Rockaway Beach the day after speaking to the swim groups.

“It may have seemed impulsive when I got into a thing but I followed through on that thing for a while,” he says. “The motorcycle — I was riding for hours and hours a day for months on end. Or when I started doing music, I was playing all the time. [Whatever it was] I tried to get enveloped by it. It may seem to the spectator that it was impulsive … but for me it wasn’t. I was looking for something until I found what it was.”

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None of these things, he believes, were wastes of his time. In every new obsession he found some truth and incorporated that into his life, making him a better person for having done it. Take meditation. Ervin no longer meditates as a practice, but he learned and absorbed the process, so that he can call upon it when needed. This is the art of “being self-aware instead of being led along by the senses of your environment,” he says. “Be aware of them. Don’t reject them but be very conscious of them.”

Ervin watched his kids love swimming and that in turn helped him rediscover the love, too. He realized that what he liked about swimming was the same thing he liked about music, about meditation, about hallucinogenic drugs. “There’s a certain self-absorption that you don’t really have in other sports,” he says. “The senses drip away.”

He didn’t commit to a comeback. He worked in the pool, but he also played in bands and went out a lot, often wearing a trenchcoat and eyeliner. He was still smoking, both cigarettes and pot.

By the time the Rio Olympics began, Ervin would be 35 — five years older than anyone who’d ever won an individual gold medal in swimming. He’d have to motivate and train like athletes 10 or even 15 years younger, while overcoming his own aging body. But he had an edge: His mind. “Young people can bounce back really well,” he explains, “but what they don’t necessarily account for is emotional and mental energy. They have a lot more energy to work with but a lot of that time is frivolously used.” An older man understands his body better — and his mind doesn’t work against him.

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Ervin felt none of the distractions that plagued him as a young swimmer. He enjoyed training and didn’t have to argue with himself every morning about getting up for practice. Most days he woke up early — before his alarm — and had plenty of time to eat breakfast.

Ervin was expected to swim both the 50 and the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. But the night before the relay semifinal, the coaches told him they were swapping in a younger swimmer.

“A very fast, sharp depression came on,” he recalls. In years past the funk would have ruined him. But Ervin let the thoughts come and began to work through them. The night before the 50-meter final, his godmother called. The coaches’ decision might be wrong, she told him, but it was over, and his Olympics weren’t. To wallow was hurting “all the people that I actually was doing this for. My family and my friends did not want to see me swim when I wasn’t present. I’m a freestyle swimmer. I’ve got to swim free.”

He’ll never forget what she said at the end. “She told me that these coaches are concerned with greatness, not goodness. And all greatness fades. All empires eventually crumble. But if you’re good to people, that endures from life to life. She reminded me that I’ve been down and up a lot of times, and when I was down, it was the good people who helped me up. When she helped me rediscover that, the weight that I had been carrying around lifted and I was free.”

For the 50 final, Ervin drew lane 3, directly between Flo Manaudou, the defending Olympic champion, and Ben Proud, a young Brit and a rising star. These were arguably the two fastest starters in the world sandwiching a guy famous for his slow starts. “Two years ago, I would have panicked and been like, ‘I’m going to see them ahead of me and I’m going to buckle under that pressure right from the get-go,’” he says. “This time I was like, ‘All right, they’re going to dive in, and their wave is going to lift me up and push me forward.’”

Ervin has neither committed to, nor ruled out, trying for a fourth Olympics in 2020, in Tokyo. He would be 39. He fully expects a new generation to rise up and usurp him and knows that in all likelihood he won’t be able to cheat time and beat them all again. And that’s fine. The target moves. “My definitive goal would be to make sure I’m in the finals at Olympic trials,” Ervin says. “Just to show that I’m still f*cking good.”

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