Once the youngest swimmer on the U.S. Olympic swim team, Anthony Ervin is making one of the strangest and most successful comebacks in swimming history. Despite eight years of rock-bottom depression, suicide, drugs, addictions and failures, he has fallen back in love with the water.
Now 35-years-old, he is one of the fastest swimmers in the world and once again headed to the Olympics—this time as the oldest swimmer on the American team.
But his roller coaster Olympic career aside, Anthony Ervin has quite the story to tell, and it has little to do with his Gold medal that he auctioned off for $17,101.
Ervin was born and raised in California by a Jewish mother and an African-American father. He has Tourette’s Syndrome, and his arms are so inked that it appears his tattoos even have tattoos. He tried his hand at being a rock musician after he had found major success at an incredibly young age.
In 2000, Ervin swam in his first Olympic games. At only 19 years old, he won a gold in the 50 meter free. He later auctioned off the medal for $17,101 and donated the funds to tsunami relief efforts.
“I feel like my own success is a personal vanity,” he explains. “I know it’s illusory. It doesn’t have much meaning.”
It was shortly after when Ervin faced some of his darkest and most self-destructive seasons. “I’m keenly aware that success can be toxic,” he explained. At 22 years old, he retired from swimming.
Ervin’s friend and fellow swimming champ Elliot Ptasnik said the gold medalist was “a little aimless. He was couch surfing, partying a lot, rolling cigarettes and going to punk rock shows. He was a little lost.” He had run away from swimming and dropped out of college at Cal-Berkeley.
It was during that time when Ervin began experimenting heavily with all sorts of mind altering drugs. He was addicted to cigarettes, became deeply depressed, and with the support of harbored suicidal thoughts, he drove a motorcycle 177 mph. And that was only the beginning.
Ervin didn’t know what to do with the early success of his swimming career. In his recently published book, Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian, Ervin writes, “You’re the best only for that moment and then it’s past and you must prove it again. In my experience, being the best is awesome for a second and then sucks.”
At the peak of his destructiveness, he was setting fires, outrunning cops and he attempted suicide on a different occasion by consuming all of the pills he uses to control his Tourette’s syndrome, at once.
It was after all of this when some of Ervin’s closest friends, like swim coach David Marsh and Elliot Ptasnik, got him back in the pool.
Ervin came out of retirement, and competed in the Olympic games in London in 2012, where he came in fifth in swimming’s shortest race, the 50-meter sprint.
“During eight years of retirement,” Marsh said, “Tony went through what is too often common to the highest-level athletes who retire. He was a lost soul without a grip on a routine or pillar that would help him gain clarity for his next steps.”
Ervin didn’t retire from swimming after the 2012 Olympics. Instead, he continued to find joy in his sport again. He gave up cigarettes long ago and now is swimming times that are about as good as they were at his peak 15 years ago.
Ervin believes he just completed his best Olympic Trials ever, qualifying both in the 4×100 freestyle relay and individually in the 50-meter freestyle. This time, he said, will feel a lot different than it did when he was 19 and tied for a gold medal in the 50 free.
“When I was 19,” he said, “it all seemed very haphazard and chaotic and very lucky. I was more constructed than doing the constructing. This time, I feel like I am in the driver’s seat.”
He’s one of 46 swimmers representing the United States Olympic Swim Team in Rio, and this past week his teammates named him one of the squad’s six captains.
“For me,” he said, “it’s the best job in the world. I get to work out and take care of my body. I enjoy the company of younger people, they keep you young….Although my own success is a vanity, I never said sport itself was meaningless, just my own success. I think sport is great. It’s a beautiful thing and it leads to beautiful lives.”