There are many ways to describe Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin.
Rolling Stone magazine characterized him as a “tattooed, half-black, half-Jewish grad student with Tourette’s syndrome who has a history with hallucinogens, tobacco, fast motorcycles and rock & roll.”
As a fresh-faced 19-year-old, Ervin won gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, but just a few years later, he gave up swimming and joined a band.
“When I gave it all up, I went into my chrysalis and did all my partying and self-actualizing in New York,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012. “I’d like to think that I’m emerging now as my moth. And I’m going to fly into the flames.”
At 35 years old, Ervin is coming full circle. Having already captured gold in Rio, he will swim in his signature event, the 50-meter freestyle, on Friday.
Here’s what you need to know about the American swimmer:
1. He Retired in 2002
Ervin turned his back on swimming only two years after winning gold in the 50-meter sprint at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.
He dropped out of school at University of California, Berkeley, and moved to New York to play in a rock-and-roll band. The once Olympic champion led a life far from that of an elite athlete.
Ervin suffered from depression and attempted suicide by taking a bottle of tranquilizers used to control his Tourette’s.
“I woke up the next morning only to find I had failed to even kill myself,” he told the Telegraph. “At that point, I had a moment-with-God-type thing. I was reborn, in a way.”
He almost killed himself on numerous occasions while riding a motorcycle at dangerous speeds while high on LSD and cocaine.
When he hit his absolute low, Ervin was “a shell of himself as an Olympic champion,” David Marsh, one of the U.S. coaches in Rio, told the Daily News.
2. He Returned to Swimming in 2008
After a friend offered him a position at a New York swimming school, Ervin started to turn his life around, according to the Telegraph. However, it was a long process before he made a full recovery from years of drug abuse.
A close friend told People there were times when he was barely able to rise from a sofa for days on end.
Having dropped out of swimming, and college Ervin returned to Cal in 2008, where nine years earlier he had set a world record of 21.21 in the 50-meter.
“My real bane was smoking pot and cigarettes,” he told the Telegraph. “It’s really been my Kryptonite. Once I got away from it, my body just resurged and kind of flourished.”
Getting inked up, was part of his re-discovery process.
“For me, getting the tattoos was a way of reclaiming my own skin, and regaining control of myself,” Ervin told CBS.
He resumed courses at Berkeley and in 2011, was back in the pool. Ervin found his way back to the Olympic trials, where he made the U.S team for the 2012 games. He went on to place fifth at the London games in the 50-meter freestyle–12 years after his first Olympics.
3. He Is the Oldest Member on the U.S. Swim Team
Ervin won his second gold medal Sunday in Rio. The 35-year-old swimmer is the oldest member on the U.S. swim team. He’s also the oldest American male to compete in an individual event at the Olympics since 1904.
“It’s his ability to make changes, both in his life and in the water, that makes him special,” longtime coach Mike Bottom told People.
In Rio, he earned gold as part of the U.S. men’s 4×100-meter free relay.
“That was a team effort, getting that medal,” Ervin told the Daily News. “Being a part of that relay was something I always wanted, even though the 100 is not necessarily where my strongest gift is.”
4. He No Longer Has Either of His Medals From the Sydney Games
In 2000, Ervin shared gold in the 50-meter freestyle with best friend Gary Hall Jr. and earned silver as part of the U.S. men’s 4×100-meter free relay.
However, he no longer has either of his medals. Ervin auctioned off his Olympic gold for $17,000 gave the proceeds to the UNICEF tsunami relief fund. He lost his silver at some point during his travels.
When asked if he was planning to keep the gold he won in Rio, he said, “I don’t know.”
“I’m living in the moment, man. I know nothing about what I’m going to do other than how I’m trying to set myself from what I just did to how I’m going to swim tonight,” he told NBC.
5. He Wrote About His Journey in An Autobiography
Ervin’s 2016 autobiography “Chasing Water,” explores the ups and downs of his career, and life. He recounts his downward spiral from an Olympic champion to a life of drugs, and how he found his way back.
Ervin experimented in Buddhism and cross-dressing, he writes in his book. He also says he stopped telling people he had ever been a swimmer.
“It’s fair to say nobody has been through what he has,” U.S. swimming coach David Marsh told People. “But Anthony’s got the most efficient freestyle I’ve ever seen. That’s been the case since he was young. He’s just a barracuda in the water.”
When asked why he wanted to tell his story, Ervin told Vice Sports:
There’s that theme of cowardice and courage in the book. I wanted to make the conscientious effort not to be afraid. So I need to do it but I need to do it the way Sun Tzu would do it – you know, where it’s deliberate. If I’m going to go into battle with this, I need to do it in a way that I think I have the best possible chance of success.
As far as regrets, Ervin said he doesn’t look behind.
“I really try to avoid regret,” he told CBS. “I don’t think anybody should be stuck in the past. That’s a dead life, if you’re stuck in the past. Life moves forward.”
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