OMAHA — After one of the early rounds of the 50-meter freestyle here at the U.S. Trials, Anthony Ervin came out of the water and went over for one of those quicky interviews with NBC’s Andrea Kremer. Everyone knows the deal. Except with Anthony Ervin, nothing is ever quite you expect.
So, Anthony, Andrea asked, what does swimming mean to you now? Andrea, a pro’s pro, knew full well that he was the 2000 Sydney Games gold medalist in the 50 free and had come back to the sport after a long break during which he’d done some other stuff, a lot of which was really interesting, some hugely introspective, huge chunks of which we may never know about. That’s all part of being Anthony Ervin.
“I know you want a short and sexy answer for TV,” he said with a big smile. “I’d have to write a book about that one. I’ve had such a journey. It has been circuitous. What was light was dark; what was dark was light. And the path was wonderful.”
The shortest journey between two points in a 50-meter pool is a straight line, metaphysically speaking, and takes just over 21 seconds,. For Anthony Ervin, the path Sunday night led him back to the Olympic Games.
Before 12,406 roaring fans, Ervin, now 31, both arms covered in tattoo sleeves, his head adorned in a California Golden Bears yellow-and-blue swim cap, Anthony Ervin sprinted the 50 meters in 21.60 seconds, by far a personal best.
The resurgent Cullen Jones won the race in 21.59, just one-hundredth of a second faster, and when he finished Jones raised his right hand and then punched the water.
There was no such reaction from Anthony Ervin. That’s because, in part, he needs glasses to see the scoreboard. He relied on Nathan Adrian, with whom he had been training at Berkeley, who finished third, in 21.68, to tell him what had happened.
Those times — 21.59 and 21.60 — were the second- and third-fastest in the world this year. Only Cesar Cielo of Brazil has gone faster, 21.38.
When swimmers come out of the water, they come off the deck and go underneath to what’s called the “mixed zone,” where they meet with reporters. Typically, the press officers of USA Swimming gently limit the racers to answers of a few seconds.
Anthony Ervin spoke for four minutes and 51 seconds in what was immediately agreed was a candidate for the best mixed-zone speech of all time, full of joy and gratitude for his friends — they were in the stands wearing black and pink T-shirts that read, “Tony Ervin is Rock ‘n Roll” — and several coaches.
He said he had, at points along the way, been a “very fragile mentally person” who had been nurtured and developed, whose talents had been refined and allowed to blossom.
“Competition isn’t meant to be easy,” he said. “It’s meant to be challenging.”
Anthony Ervin won his gold medal in Sydney when he was 19. A few years later, he decided he’d had it with competitive swimming. He sold his 2000 gold medal for $17,101 and donated the money to relief efforts for the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia; he now says he was a “mystic” at the time.
He played in a band. He taught swimming to kids in New York City. He slept on his friend Elliot Ptasnik’s couch. He earned got his college degree.
Two years ago, he moved out to the Bay Area. After the Cal men’s team won its first NCAA title in March 2011, he decided he wanted back in to competitive swimming. He asked the Cal women’s coach, Teri McKeever, if he could train with her team.
Earlier this week, he explained that there were no regrets about any of it. It his life hadn’t followed the straight and narrow — you know, life isn’t always like a swimmer in a pool looking down at that black line.
“How do you move forward with one’s life if you hold on to regret? If you turn around, you’d be like Lot’s wife. You’d just be a pillar of salt. What could have been? I don’t know. All I know is what did happen and I feel lucky and privileged and glad to be here right now.”
Coming into the Trials, Anthony Ervin had come nowhere near his personal best in the 50, 21.8.
In the prelims, he went 21.83, fastest in the field.
Then, in the semifinals, 21.74, again fastest in the field.
Elliot Ptasnik, before the race, declared, “He’ll make the Olympics. I have no doubt.”
Swimming in Lane 4, Anthony Ervin went out and slammed that 21.6 to make the Olympics.
Asked what his expectations were for London, he said that of course he hoped to win a medal.
But there was a bigger picture, and understand the connotation here, because there’s nothing sinister in his words, only the joy and gratitude of a 31-year-old man who has found profound beauty in testing himself, because in that test there is deep meaning in competition at the highest level: “I just want to keep the fun train chugging.”