Author, rock guitarist, t-shirt entrepreneur, Zen Buddhist: Anthony Ervin is so much more than a two-time Olympic medalist. With full-sleeve tattoos and an English degree, he’s pushed beyond ‘bad boy’ and jock stereotypes to forge his own path – and this week, it’s leading the 35-year-old to Rio.
Ervin was born in May 1981 in Valenica, California. His mixed heritage includes African American and Native American (his father’s side) as well as European Jewish roots (his mother’s).
As a child, he was considered something of a troublemaker. To help him expend his excess energy, his parents enrolled him in swimming. In the Canyons Aquatic Club in Santa Clarita, he scored his first swimming successes while on tranquilizers prescribed for Tourette syndrome.
Ervin started at UC Berkeley in 1999. Just one year later, he qualified for Team USA.
At the Sydney Olympics, Ervin finished the 50-meter freestyle final in 21.98 seconds, earning the gold medal! (After the devastating 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, he auctioned that medal on eBay to benefit the survivors.) As part of the 4x100-meter freestyle, he also took home the silver.
Ervin continued to surf his successful wave of wins all the way to the 2001 World Championships, where he took the gold for the 50 and 100 free in Fukuoka, Japan. The next year in Yokohama, Japan, he took two silvers – in the 50 free and the 400 relay.
By the time he was finished swimming in college, he was a 27-time NCAA All-American and the three-time national champion in the 400 and 100-meter freestyle relays.
Retiring in His Prime
After Yokohama, Ervin decided to retire. He was experiencing depression, tried self-medicating, and played guitar in a number of rock bands. He then turned his life around, discovering Zen Buddhism and finally completing his BA in English.
Once he was refocused, he couldn't avoid the siren call of the pool for long. At first it started with instruction, just tutoring here and there. Then he became a coach.
In 2010, he went back to Berkeley to pursue a Master’s in the Culture of Sport in Education. He continued to instruct and coach on the side, developing a real passion for seeing kids like he had been develop into accomplished athletes.
By January 2012, he had been back in the pool long enough to record a 22.27 in the Austin Grand Prix 50 free. At that summer’s Olympic Trials, he broke a personal record by doing a 50 free in 21.60 seconds; so at age 31, he was swimming faster than he had at 19!
The Road to Rio
This April, Ervin’s book, Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian, hit shelves (and e-readers). Kirkus Reviews called it “provocative and refreshingly honest”; Library Journal echoed that sentiment, noting that the book featured “more depth, breadth [and] truth … than found in traditional athlete” memoirs.
Ervin's latest record is in the age category. He is 35 years old, and so the most senior U.S. Olympic swimmer in the last ten years. Regardless of the outcome, he seems to be enjoying his Olympic experience more than in years past.
“When I was 19,” he recently told the Charlotte Observer, “it all seemed very haphazard and chaotic and very lucky. I was more constructed than doing the constructing. This time, I feel like I am in the driver’s seat.”