At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 19-year-old swimmer Anthony Ervin took gold in the 50-meter freestyle, along with silver in the 100-meter relay.
The next year, he grabbed two more golds at the world championships, in the 50 and the 100 freestyle.
Then in 2003, at 22, he walked away from it all — college as well as competitive swimming. He’d had enough, he told his friends. He was, as more than one media outlet reported, burned out.
“What drove him away from the sport was all the attention, and with that, all the expectations,” former Cal swimmer Spencer Hawkins told the New York Times last month. “Too many people were telling him what to do.”
Now, in a remarkable comeback, the U.C. Berkeley alumnus is in London with Team USA, looking for Olympic gold once again in the same 50-meter freestyle event that first rocketed him to fame. The heats begin Thursday, Aug. 2, with the final scheduled for Aug. 3.
“I’m going to London!” he crowed to reporters July 1 in Omaha, after posting a personal best of 21.60 seconds in the 50 to qualify for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
Ervin does what he wants, his own way, in his own time.
He grew up in Valencia in Southern California and took to the waters early, swimming for Hart High School in the nearby town of Newhall.
The media love him. They love his mixed heritage — Jewish on his mother’s side, black and Native American on his father’s. They love his bad-boy rebelliousness, the tattoo sleeves that run down both arms, the fact that he gave up a potentially lucrative swimming career to play guitar in a rock band. They love that in 2004 he sold his Olympic gold medal on eBay for $17,000, which he donated to Asian tsunami relief; he can’t remember what he did with the silver.
He’s on the cover of the new Rolling Stone magazine, bare-chested and slightly smirking, under the headline “The Rebel Olympian.”
After seven years out of the limelight, much of it spent in New York, he moved back to Berkeley in 2010, finished his undergraduate degree in English at Cal, enrolled in a graduate program in sport, culture and education, and started training in earnest with Cal women’s coach Teri McKeever, who is also head coach for the U.S. women’s team.
He also started coaching kids again, something he did during his stint in New York, this time for the Oakland Undercurrent swim team, which is part of a program that provides free and low-cost swimming instruction to Oakland youth. He had been stopping by four days a week to coach the 6- to 10-year-olds, after his own practice at Cal.
“Our team is about diversity in sport,” said Hawkins, the Undercurrent head coach, adding that the kids “swarm around coach Tony” when he’s at the pool. “Tony has his own mix, being African American, Jewish and Native American. He really carries a lot of pride in who he is and what he’s done.”
Friends have told reporters that Ervin doesn’t like to be defined by one ethnicity or the other. While the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame enshrined him in 2001, and Wikipedia lists him as a Jewish American athlete, many reporters prefer to focus on his African-American heritage. Ervin himself has been quoted saying that they’re both part of who he is, as are his Native American roots.
But in the end, he’s a swimmer who wants to win. And while he is telling reporters he hopes to recapture the gold he won in Sydney, he isn’t making any promises for what undoubtedly will be his last Olympics.
“I’m going to try my best,” he told Espn.com on July 1. “All I can promise is I’m going to do what I can.”