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Swimming against the tide – the Anthony Ervin story

Anthony Ervin had the world of swimming at his feet when he won Olympic Gold at just 19 years of age. A decade in the wilderness followed, as he struggled with depression and drug and alcohol abuse. Thankfully, a remarkable redemption was just around the corner.

Jun 6, 2019 |
5 min read

Few events in the sporting calendar make the heart soar quite like the Olympic games. Setting aside tribal and territorial rivalries for a month every four years, the Olympics are a testament to the human spirit. Few people exemplify the determination and self-discipline required to be the very best than swimmer Anthony Ervin.

Making a splash

Anthony Ervin became a household name among sporting enthusiasts in the year 2000. A gifted swimmer, Ervin scooped a Gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle event in Sydney. In addition, he was also a member of the men’s relay team that captured Silver medals in the 100-meter freestyle.

In doing so, Ervin became the first American citizen of African descent to earn a solo Gold medal at the Olympic games. He was just 19 years of age when he achieved these landmarks. In most cases, this would be enough to secure an athlete’s place in the history books.

Ervin added to his trophy cabinet the following year. Two Gold medals, obtained by leading the pack in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events, were awarded at the World Aquatics Championship in Japan.

It would appear to anybody on the outside looking in that Anthony Ervin had the world at his feet. Sadly, unlike the swimming lanes that he competed in, Ervin’s life path was not straightforward and unstinting.

Back on dry land

Anthony Ervin was the first person to admit that the ability of his younger self was not matched by ambition. He told Rolling Stone magazine that, “I had a reputation for extraordinary talent matched only by extraordinary sloth.”

This was presumably what led to Ervin growing disillusioned with swimming as a sport and spectacle. Despite breaking world records as a teen and garnering a reputation as the fastest swimmer in the world, Ervin retired at the age of just 23.

His achievements seemingly held very little sentimental value too. Ervin auctioned his Olympic Gold medal on eBay. The proceeds were donated to UNICEF to aid survivors of the tsunami that devastated Thailand in December 2014.

Standing a crossroads in his life, Ervin made decisions that would define his future. He turned his back on his sporting past and moved to New York, aiming to begin a new life as a rock and roll star. This decision sent Ervin down a dark path of self-destruction.

In too deep

As a child, Anthony Ervin was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, which manifested as a series of facial tics and spasms. Unfortunately, support for the condition was thin on the ground during Ervin’s childhood. As an ambassador of the Tourette Association of America, Ervin has noted that this body would have provided him with guidance and assistance during his formative years.

Tourette’s syndrome defined Anthony Ervin’s early life. He was a troubled youngster, considered a troublemaker by his kindergarten teacher. Swimming was an outlet for his bursts of energy though, and from the age of 7, he found that he was a natural in the pool. This possibly explains why, after turning his back on swimming, his life began to fall apart.

The years following Ervin’s Olympic victory in Sydney could generously be described as a lost decade. Ervin descended into a variety of addictions. He began drinking heavily, abusing drugs, and womanizing. In his own words, Ervin considered women to be, “objects to destroy at will.”

As is so often the case with addictive personalities, self-loathing and depression followed. Ervin found himself trapped in an eternal cycle of shame, using drugs and alcohol to escape the reality that he found himself in. His music career never took off, and he found himself unable to leave the house for days on end due to crippling depression.

It looked to the entire world like the man that once heralded a bright new future for American swimming was destined to become a tragic cautionary tale. Thankfully, Ervin had other ideas.

Reaching the surface

Anthony Ervin hit rock bottom when he attempted suicide by overdosing on tranquilizers. Surviving this experience, alongside a near-fatal motorcycle accident, gave Ervin a new perspective on life.

He took a job teaching swimming at a New York school, though he freely admits that a return to competition wasn’t on his mind at this stage. He was just flat broke, with years of decadence taking as much toll on his checking account as his mental and physical health.

Ervin found his return to the water to be therapeutic, though. Getting back in the pool ensured that he needed to start taking better care of his health, and teaching and molding young minds helped to restore his own emotional equilibrium.

As he continued to train, he found himself in increasingly good health. Before long, that old competitive edge returned and Ervin began competing in swim meets.

As his performance times kept dropping, Ervin came to a realization. Swimming was in his blood, and it was the one thing that could keep him focused and happy. With the 2012 Olympics in London on the horizon, Ervin trained harder than ever. He qualified for the American swim team for the event. This was just the beginning of his remarkable comeback.

Gold standard

Anthony Ervin competed in the 50-meter freestyle. He placed a highly respectable fifth, but this was just the beginning. He continued to improve his personal best times in the US and World Championships over 2013 and 2014, all with the intention of returning to the Olympics in Rio in 2016.

It was here that Ervin completed his quest for personal redemption. Ervin won two Gold medals at these games, claiming first place in the 50-meter freestyle and the relay. At the age of 36, 16 years on from when he announced his presence to the world in Sydney, Ervin replaced Michael Phelps as the oldest individual Gold medal-winning swimmer in US history.

Perhaps more importantly, he showed that there is situation that cannot be overcome with the right dedication and perseverance. Anthony Ervin is the embodiment of the opportunities afforded by the Olympics. The manner in which he turned his life around is an inspiration to any troubled athlete.

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