What happens when you combine Ashkenazi bloodlines with African-American and Native American ones? But, why stop there? Let’s throw in a case of Tourette’s syndrome and arms consumed entirely by tattoos for good measure.
If you had asked me yesterday what all that leads to I would’ve had absolutely no idea (and would have had to immediately Google “Ashkenazi,” which refers to Jews who settled throughout Central and Eastern Europe, in case you were wondering).
But, apparently that combo leads to the first African-American to make a U.S. Olympic swim team and one of the most intriguing and somehow under the radar storylines of this year’s games.
He is a decorated swimmer, an inductee into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (even though he celebrates Christmas, not Hanukkah) and his name is Anthony Ervin. So, why have you most likely never heard that name before? It’s probably because the accomplishments I just listed and trailblazing I referenced all occurred over a decade ago.
However, the human embodiment of the melting pot that is America, has returned for a (perhaps) final lap around the pool this August in Rio.
After taking home a Gold medal in the 50m freestyle and a Silver in the 400 x 100m freestyle as a prodigious 19 year old at the 2000 Games in Sydney, the projection for the next decade and a half of Anthony Ervin’s life would deviate considerably from the plan that was laid out before him.
Before we dive-in (no pun intended) to the road that led Ervin back to the Olympics from obscurity, we first need to gain a better sense of the man that exists outside of the pool. The first step in doing that is to quickly realize that he is not defined by any of the characteristics listed above this paragraph.
In a 2012 Rolling Stone article, Ervin reflected on what is was like to win a gold medal as a teenager and to be immediately asked to put his position as the first African-American to make a U.S. Olympic swim team into perspective:
“I didn’t know a thing about what it was like to be part of the black experience,” Ervin says today. “But now I do. It’s like winning gold and having a bunch of old white people ask you what it’s like to be black. That is my black experience.”
And even 4 years later, Ervin expresses a certain comfortability in the seemingly discomfort associated with his identity. In a March interview with VICE he touched once again on his relationship with being black:
….So do I have the right to then represent blackness in the now?
And what conclusion have you come to?
You don’t think you do?
Not as a representative for those who are actually in danger. I will stump for them. I will say that it is wrong, that I’m not a policy maker but it should not be. It should not be. But I am not in the grip of that danger. I don’t have the “darkness” about me.
So, here we had a black, Native American, Jewish swimmer who had no idea who he was and who exploded onto the world stage before he could even have a beer. Now, how does this story sound like it’s going to end? Either with unparalleled super stardom or an epic burnout like we’ve seen too many times before.
Well, you’ve probably never heard of Anthony Ervin, so it’s a safe bet to take the latter.
Less than three years after following up his Olympic performance with two Gold medals at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan a then 22-year old Ervin hung up his goggles and sold his Gold medal from Sydney on eBay for $17,000. He would donate the proceeds to UNICEF in support of the tsunami relief fund for Indonesia before heading off to New York City for his next chapter.
This rebellion was far from a surprise. Ervin had a history of acting recklessly (like when he was banned from the regional championships for a year while he was in high school for setting a hotel bed on fire) and his escape to college and the freedom that afforded him allowed it to be on full display.
The Rolling Stone article depicts Ervin’s first week on campus at UC Berkeley like the opening act from every coming of age story centered on a college freshman. The article states that Ervin “got drunk daily, smoked marijuana for the first time and lost his virginity.”
So, more or less most of our first weeks at college, but the attention grabbing portion of his early experiences was the development of a fascination with psychedelics, something just a tad bit off the beaten path of the average young adult debauchery.
While he was able to temporarily subdue his affection for vices long enough to thrive in the pool for a brief time, it took less than a year for things to begin to spiral out of control. He was slipping into a depressed state and his self-prescribed anecdote consisted of heavy alcohol consumption paired with tremendous amounts of casual sex. It got to the point where he viewed women as “objects to destroy at will,” something he feels shameful about to this day.
Those around him couldn’t begin to fathom why he would throw the gift and subsequent opportunities that had been afforded to him away, but Ervin didn’t need to be ridiculed, he needed to be helped. When that help didn’t materialize and his coping mechanism of booze and women failed, he took it upon himself to seek an escape. His strategy to do so however, did not come with a happy ending in mind. One evening Ervin consumed all of his Tourette’s medication in a single sitting.
“Everyone pushed me to keep swimming, stay in school, blah blah, and nobody understood I was struggling. I just wanted it to be fucking over.” One evening he downed all his tranquilizers and lost consciousness. “I woke up the next morning only to find I had failed to even kill myself. At that point, I had a moment-with-God-type thing. I was reborn, in a way.”
A failed suicide attempt will have a profound impact on anyone and for Anthony Ervin it provided him with a superhero-like sensation of invincibility. This lead to not exactly another suicide attempt, but a stunt so reckless it might as well have been. Soon after this invincibility revelation Ervin would lead police on a high speed motorcycle chase that concluded with him crashing into a car and skirting by death once more.
By the time 2004 rolls around Ervin has quit school and swimming, has found a variety of religions to be comforting all while continuing to pump his body full of various poisons. During this time he began covering his arms in tattoos, seemingly another rebellion against his past life, but perhaps it was against his current, more destructive one. Ervin described his physical transformation as a way to “reclaim” his body and “re-create” himself.
He found himself in New York City and pursuing a career in a rock band. He viewed music as an outlet from the masculine nature of athletics. It was an arena where he could express himself and in a place that the bravado that came with being a world class athlete was absent. But, like many chasing the dream of becoming a rock star, Ervin soon ran out of money and became desperate for a paycheck to get by. The most classic cliché scenario of a blessing in disguise.
Ervin would reluctantly accept a coaching position offered by a former Cal teammate at a New York swim school. For the first time in his life being in the pool wasn’t surrounded by pressure, the prison that confined him as a child now became his safe haven. He was able to let this opportunity revitalize him and help him conquer the demons that finally began to relinquish the stranglehold they had on him.
In 2007 Ervin would return to Cal to complete his undergraduate degree in English while making trips back to New York to teach in the summertime. But, it wasn’t until another bout with depression in 2010 did he seriously return to swimming. It was a therapeutic outlet, both physically and emotionally for him, but soon this lead to competitions and increased training and before he knew it he had rediscovered the ability that at one point had defined him as world class.
After a 7 year hiatus and with only 18 months of training at his disposal, Ervin qualified for the 2012 Olympic Games in London and placed 5th in the 50m freestyle. But, ’12 was just the warmup, Ervin has returned for the 2016 Games as the second oldest U.S. Olympic men’s swimmer since 1904 and this time with adequate training time available.
Now, America and the world will get to see his third act, 16 years removed from his debut and get to see swimmer that his coach, David Marsh poignantly likened to a barracuda:
“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 man who uses his love of calculus to bring conscious thought to all the movements he makes in the pool and the same man that 12-time Olympic medalist, Natalie Coughlin described as “the most talented swimmer she has ever seen,” will be on the world stage once more.
When another Olympic Games have come and gone and the fall begins to encroach on the warm summer air, Ervin will return to Cal and continue working on his master’s in education where his thesis will be on the athlete as an activist, specifically Muhammad Ali.
But depending on how things go in a few weeks’ time, don’t be shocked if Ervin’s 4 th act takes place on the Olympic stage as well.
“What if the seemingly impossible happens and I have an incredible Games? Why stop? If nothing else, why not at least consider that I can whip myself into shape at 39 and show up at trials and make the final? Not even worry about making the team, I just make the final – just chilling when I’m old as fuck (laughs). It would be awesome. So I wouldn’t put it past me that I’ll always be going back into the fight.”
You can purchase Ervin’s new book, Chasing Water here