Joint Olympic 50m free champion at 19 in Sydney back in 2000 and world 50m and 100m champion in 2001, Anthony Ervin walked away from racing at 22 in February 2004, his decision in Olympic season one of those that leaves question marks hanging heavy in the air. He said at the time: "I feel like that part of my life-as a competitor-is over. I'm moving on to new things, new goals, new ambitions."
At 31, he is back in the swim, a contender for a place on the 2012 US Olympic team at trials in late June, the excitement over his return best summed up by these words from his California coach Teri McKeever: “He's really got a gift. He has a great relationship with the water.”
“I respect Anthony,” McKeever tells reporter Paul Newberry of Associated Press. “Anthony has always stayed true to Anthony. Whether that was good or bad, he went on his own path. A lot of people aren't willing to do that, especially when a lot of people are saying, ‘What the hell are you doing?' He said, ‘Well, this is what I feel like I need to do.' So he did it.”
We will learn in a book on his life what happened in between pools then and now. Newberry relays a few teasers: Ervin didn't live in any one place for more than nine months; paid bills with swimming lessons and promoting concerts; smoked and played guitar in the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” band; swam masters in order to raise the money to pay the two months rent he owed.
Well-documented was Ervin's 2004 auction of his Olympic gold medal: it raised $17,000 for a tsunami disaster relief fund.
“At the time, I was very much in a mystical phase. I was kind of looking at my own accomplishments in swimming in a lot of ways as hubris, as some excessive pride,” Ervin told Newberry.
"It was right after Christmas when (the tsunami) happened. I was just watching on the news, at how many people died, just crushed by that element. I knew if I had the unfortunate luck of being there, no gold medal for swimming one lap would've spared my life. I wanted to do something to reflect my own remorse, a way to kind of letting go of something for myself and, hopefully, through the process, trying to help in some way. But it was definitely a purging, like a cleansing for myself.”
Reflecting on his retirement first time round, he noted: "I was convinced the grass would be greener somewhere else. Or, at the least, if I did make the journey, that I would see the other side of that horizon, whatever was there. I think everybody's got that to a certain degree. But I certainly had a lot of angst and resistance toward being pushed in the direction I had always been going. I really just needed freedom, so I took it.”
A gift for the profound was not granted to Ervin along his post-first-career journey. He already had it. As Newberry notes: "Even now, he's far more likely to bring up his favourite poets, or a parable in the Bible, than to discuss the finer points of his marvellous stroke."
There are moments along the journalistic trail that stand out because of an act, a response, a deed or word that spill well beyond the sports arena and prompt deeper understanding.
Ervin can lay claim to three firsts: he was the first man of African-American extraction race for the United States, the first to win an Olympic swimming title and the first man, with teammate and Sydney 2000 roommate Gary Hall Jr., to share one.
Racial stereotyping was thumped into context when Ervin, born of a three-quarters African-American father and a white Jewish mother, spoke beyond his years to say: "I feel the labels, in a way, belittle who I am. I’m proud to be black. I’m proud of my Jewish heritage. I’m proud of everything that makes me who I am. All of that makes me a unique person, just like anyone else."
His uniqueness in a world where many are moulded by expectation and circumstance is reinforced by the journey that led him back to the elite, race pool.
“I think there was something quite distinct about the approach of my 30th birthday that made me come to terms with things,” Ervin told Newberry. “Maybe, I thought, the cement is hard now. Maybe I could be confident in who I am and what I am and just try to just move forward. If I was wet cement before, now it's dry and I'm a boulder and I'm going to start rolling downhill.”
Just in time for another shot at the Olympic pool.