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Anthony Ervin: The Rebel Olympian on Chasing Water, Finding Meaning in Gold & The Search For Authenticity

By July 10, 2016January 26th, 2024No Comments

“I’ve always felt the story of my life has been about being normal but on the fringes of abnormality, and it’s the fringes that separate my history from the rest.”

Anthony Ervin

Imagine winning an Olympic gold medal in swimming at age 19 at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. A feat never-before achieved by a swimmer of African-American descent, the frenzied media swarms. The only problem? You’re only half-black. You definitely don’t look black. And you know nothing about what it’s like to be part of the black experience.

The unrelenting crush of public expectation to fulfill a role at odds with your private sense of self becomes so intense, you retreat from your Olympic experience not with any lasting sense of happiness, satisfaction and pride, but rather a numb confusion.

This isn’t anything like I thought it would be…

Over time, the confusion metastasizes into disillusionment. And it’s not long before depression sets in.

Lost and lacking the tools to cope, life begins to pivot away from the dreaded black line at the bottom of the pool and towards a dreadlocked blur of rock ‘n roll, boozy, drug-fueled binges, rampant womanizing, cigarette haze, and death-defying motorcycle crashes.

Nonetheless, over the next three years you continue to do the one thing you know how to do: swim. Not only do you continue to win, in 2001 you’re crowned the world champion in two events. But these results only magnify what is quickly becoming a profound crisis of identity.

Who am I? Why am I doing this? What does it all mean?

The answers continue to elude you until you find yourself so despondent, so desperate for relief, that you down a handful of tranquilizers. But the suicide attempt fails, fueling a sense of invincibility that only hastens the onset of an even more profound darkness.

So, at the young age of 22, at the peak of his abilities, Anthony Ervin does what he has to — he walks away from the thing he used to love. The thing that gave him everything. The thing that made him a star. The thing that betrayed it’s promise of making him whole.

In a Hail Mary attempt to discover and re-create his life, Anthony travels the world. He meditates at a Buddhist temple. He studies philosophy with a Sufi mystic. He reclaims his body with tattoos. He enrolls in graduate school but spends summers in Brooklyn, where he immerses himself in books, writes poetry, and even occasionally cross-dresses at parties.

The denouement? Hawking his Olympic gold medal on eBay and donating the proceeds to the UNICEF tsunami relief fund.

The only thing Anthony Ervin didn’t do during this time? Swim.

Not one stroke.

*  *  *

The next eight years marked a complete divorce from anything and everything swimming. In fact, not one of Anthony’s new friends during this time had any idea he was even an athlete, let alone an Olympic champion. He was just another tattooed, guitar-playing Brooklynite seeking answers to the Universe in music, meditation, books and partying.

But with funds dwindling, Anthony offhandedly takes a gig teaching New York kids how to swim. The experience of service begins to erode his jaded shell and ignites an unexpected spark of appreciation for his former life. A new sense of self worth begins to emerge, informing the why in Anthony’s quest for spiritual self-actualization. Suddenly, love for the sport he so thoroughly placed in his rearview begins to rekindle.

In 2011, Anthony returns to the water. And almost overnight, the impossible occurs.

Twelve years after Sydney, Anthony qualifies for the 2012 London Olympics — his second U.S. Olympic team. Despite his 31 years of age (ancient in the world of swimming), Anthony swims faster than he did at the 2000 Trials.

The amazing story doesn’t end there. This week finds Anthony in Rio, captaining Team USA in his third Olympiad at 35, the oldest U.S. male individual Olympic swimmer since 1904.

Earlier this week he won gold on the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay, becoming the rare athlete to celebrate Olympic victories separated by 16 years. Friday evening, Anthony will ascend the starting blocks on the world’s largest stage to vie for the title of fastest swimmer on earth in the 50-meter freestyle — the crown jewel of swimming.

UPDATE 8.12.16, 7:44pm: Sixteen years after his victory in Sydney, this evening Anthony claimed Rio gold in the 50-meter freestyle by a margin of .01 seconds, solidifying his place in sports history by becoming the oldest individual swimming gold medalist in Olympic history.

The sheer implausibility of this astounding journey cannot be overstated.

Competitive swimming at the elite level does not tolerate those who fail to pledge allegiance 365 days out of every year, year after year. Take six months off and you’re unlikely to ever return to form. But a decade? It’s not just unprecedented.

It’s impossible.

*  *  *

The story of Anthony Ervin is awe-inspiring. A testament to his monumental talent, of course. He will go down in history as one of the most decorated and accomplished sprinters of all time, as well as one of the most interesting, dynamic and complicated athletes in Olympic history.

But most compelling is the spiritual and emotional journey faced and weathered to rebuild the child into not only a champion for the ages, but a man.

This journey — save the astounding developments of the last several months — is beautifully chronicled in Anthony’s recently released memoir, Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian*. Wholly original, it’s completely unlike any sports memoir you have previously read. Featuring arresting black-and-white drawings and a graphic story extra as well as an inventive and mercurial narrative style that morphs chapter by chapter to reflect Ervin’s restless, multifaceted life, it’s an uncommon, must read sui generis sports autobiography.

At it’s core, this is a conversation about duality. It’s about identity, both public and private. It’s about rebellion versus conformity. Balance versus exceptionalism. Self-preservation versus self-destruction. Ego versus humility. Obligation versus actualization. Attachment versus surrender.

It’s about heritage, race, priorities, expectations and super compensation.

And it’s about what is truly important in life.

Enjoy my conversation with one of the most talented, unique and complex Olympic athletes currently vying for gold in Rio.

I hope you enjoy the exchange. And when the Rio dust settles, I promise to have him back to recap the experience and complete the circle.

Peace + Plants,


P.S. Please make a point of reading this exceptional profile of Anthony in Rolling Stone from 2012, penned by Anthony’s autobiography co-writer Constantine Markides.

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Notable People Discussed:

  • Ariana Kukors: American former competition swimmer and former world record holder in the 200-meter individual medley
  • Mike Bottom: Michigan swimming coach and men’s assistant coach for Team USA for the Rio Olympics
  • John Moffet: American former competition swimmer who competed at the 1984 Summer Olympics
  • Gary Hall: American former competition swimmer who competed at the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics
  • Jon Olsen: American former competition swimmer, four-time Olympic champion, and former world record-holder
  • Ian Thorpe: Australian swimmer who specializes in freestyle, but also competes in backstroke and the individual medley
  • Michael Klim: Polish-born Australian swimmer, Olympic gold medallist, world champion, and former world record-holder

Related Podcasts You Might Enjoy:

Thanks to Jason Camiolo for production, interstitial music and audio engineering; Chris Swan for production assistance & show notes; Shawn Patterson for graphics; and Ana Leimma for the theme music.

*Disclosure:Books and products denoted with an asterisk are hyperlinked to an affiliate program. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

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