Teri McKeever

Anthony Ervin's fantastic journey keeps on keeping on

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."

On Natalie Coughlin's greatness

Natalie Coughlin, who over the past two Summer Olympics has won 11 medals, opened her 2011 season by racing in three finals this past weekend at the Eric Namesnik Michigan Grand Prix, held at one of America's best swim halls, Canham Auditorium, in Ann Arbor. She won the 100-meter backstroke and came in second in both the 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly. Dana Vollmer won both those events.

It is the nature of Olympic-style racing that when a great swimmer such as Coughlin goes one-for-three in an early-season meet there is the temptation from some quarters to wonder if something is somehow amiss.

As if she's supposed to win every single race she enters.

"Am I supposed to?" she said with a bewildered laugh.

That, truly, is the greatness of Natalie Coughlin.

She has won three Olympic gold medals. She has won four Olympic silver medals. She has won four Olympic bronze medals. In London next year, Coughlin could become the most-decorated American female athlete in Olympic history, depending perhaps in part on Dara Torres, who -- like yet another swimmer, Jenny Thompson -- has 12 medals.

If it can be incredible to be normal, what sets Coughlin apart within the Olympic scene is her normal-ness -- arguably, that's not even a word but there's seemingly no other way to put it - as well as her remarkably refreshing perspective on competition and on what constitutes success.

Indeed, her attitude ought to be packaged up and shipped out to playgrounds everywhere where winning-is-the-only-thing jerks hold sway.

It's a little bit like the bit of philosophy she offered in her Twitter feed from the Michigan meet: "Swimming is funny; effort & force don't always translate to fast swims. The water is dynamic & doesn't always respond to sheer force."

Natalie Coughlin is living proof that you can train hard, eat right, maintain balance in your home and professional lives, be happy puttering around your garden, derive satisfaction as an amateur photographer, root for the California Golden Bears, watch the sun set over the Golden Gate, all of that.

And win, at the highest level. More -- not only win but win with great elegance.

And reflect thusly: "Swimming is important to me. It's not everything to me."

That is not to minimize the import of swimming in her life.

Rather, Natalie Coughlin offers evidence that what counts in life is really living -- that it can be a good thing to, say, step out of your comfort zone by doing something like going on "Dancing with the Stars."  All along, that was the sort of deal that carried the risk of messing up in front of millions of people. So what? Moreover, everyone knew from the get-go that she was a swimmer, not a dancer. So she didn't come in first place. Again, so what? She loved it, loved the experience. That's a win.

"The reason I did [the show] and I don't think people believe me," she said, "is I just wanted to learn how to dance."

Success, she said, is "different for everyone."

"For me," she added, "it's doing my best. Obviously, I am not saying I don't appreciate gold medals or world records or winning. I don't think that should define a career. For me, that doesn't define a career."

She also said, "One of the most frustrating things for me, after watching a competition or the broadcast of something, is when the announcer says, 'How disappointing for so-and-so -- they get the silver medal.'

"I don't think anyone but the athlete gets to decide that. It's a dangerous message to kids to tell them they have to win to be successful. There's only one winner in every event. If everyone else is a failure, what are we doing?"

Think back, she said, to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, and the men's 200-meter freestyle. Michael Phelps won, and set a new world record. "The silver medalist in the 200 free," Park Tae-Hwan of South Korea -- "wasn't he successful?"

She paused. "Because he was beaten by Michael, that doesn't mean he wasn't successful."

Another pause. "If you can say you did your best, that's all you can do."

And enjoy it along the way -- you have to enjoy it along the way. There's so much attention in a sport such as swimming to the peak moment that is the Olympic Games. But the focus on that moment, even if it's understandable, ignores all that it takes to get there.

"I love training," Coughlin said. "I love pushing myself every day. I love working out."

Soon enough, it will be summer, and the world championships in Shanghai will be here. For Coughlin, that meet in Michigan was not only her first long-course meet of the year, it made for her first long-course meet since last summer.

Those second-place finishes behind Vollmer, who is herself of course an excellent swimmer -- in each of the two races, they came by about a half a second. Come on. It's April.

Again from her Twitter feed -- Teri McKeever, her coach, had told her to "fly & die" in the 100 free, which she did, finishing in 54.93, just back of Vollmer's 54.52. "Great start to the longcourse season," Coughlin wrote.

She said, "If you're going to be sad you lost a race -- how many people are in a race? 200? 199 are going to cry about it? I've been competing for 20 years. If I freaked out about little things I would have gone crazy by now."

No crazy here. It's all good.

Her times were good. Her strokes "felt great." Overall, she said, "I was really, really happy."