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Anthony Ervin Reflects on his Career, and Michael Phelps After Historic Gold Medal Win

Anthony Ervin talks about his path back to Olympic gold and how Michael Phelps has matured into a leader.

by Aimee Berg
Aug 15 2016, 3:13am

Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

When Anthony Ervin won his first Olympic gold medal, in 2000, he was stunned by the post-race questions. Jim Gray confronted the 19-year-old champion on TV and said, "I noticed you were blinking prior to the race. Was that your Tourette's syndrome?" When that fell flat, he asked how it felt to be the first swimmer of African-American descent to win gold.

Sixteen years later, Ervin won the 50 free again, and nobody asked about health or race. At 35, he had just become the oldest Olympic swimming gold medalist in history.

"See you in four years?" reporters asked.

Ervin was open to the possibility – even the next day, during his final press conference in Rio.

Read More: VICE Sports Q&A: Olympic Gold Medalist Anthony Ervin on Life In and Out of the Pool

Still wearing his red-sleeved podium jacket, Ervin told a roomful of writers on Saturday, "I can guarantee you'll see me in Tokyo 2020. Whether I'm in a suit, cap and goggles – or a suit and tie – we don't know yet.

"There's...this perpetual question of retirement. But I just love the lifestyle. I love swimming. Being in the water is a sanctuary.

"I'm not going to give that up whether I'm the best in the world or competitively irrelevant. I'm just going to keep going until I'm not wanted anymore."

Frankly, it was amazing he was in Rio at all. After tying Gary Hall, Jr. for that 50-meter gold in Sydney, he retired early and followed a self-destructive path that included a suicide attempt, homelessness, and drugs. But he was also highly introspective. He delved into philosophy, sold his gold medal for charity, regained his health, came back, and made the 2012 Olympic team. A botched start in the 50-meter final in London, however, left him in fifth place.

Now he leaves Rio with not one – but two – gold medals. (He also helped the U.S. win the 4 x 100m freestyle relay.) He has a baby daughter waiting to meet him in the States. (She was born during the U.S. Olympic Trials.) He didn't say whether he would keep his medals this time, but he did say his perspective has changed.

"More than anything," he said, "I really see that this isn't me up here. That swim was 37 strokes. My family, my friends, that's what got me here. It took an enormous amount of people that loved me, cared about me, wanted to see me succeed and see me be happy doing it. When I was younger, I don't think I fully understood that. I was still wayward with my ego.

"The weight of this gold feels much lighter knowing that it's being carried by my people."

He was also asked to reflect upon the arc of another swimmer who made his Olympic debut in Sydney.

Ervin's answer was thoughtful, as always – but some of the praises could have just as easily applied to himself.

Speaking about Michael Phelps, Ervin said, "I don't want to precipitate that [his] retirement is going to be permanent or not. I hope not. The guy's still so good. He still offers so much as a competitor.

"Michael showed up in 2000. In 2001, he really started making his move. And the ripples of that started moving its way through the entire national team. The best swimmers in the country started to get scared because this one person is going to start replacing all these people. It was just like a waiting game. When Beijing came, the prophecies came true. Eight golds. In London, he talked extensively about his difficulties. And he was massively successful.

"He's human – as we all are. He's just a swimmer; we're just swimmers, too. I think this game has really showed that...the human spirit has a capacity to heal. It showed in his swimming. It showed in his demeanor. It certainly showed in his leadership on the team."

Anthony Ervin celebrates after winning the 50m freestyle on Friday. Photo by Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Phelps, Ervin, and Nathan Adrian were tri-captains of the U.S. men's team in Rio.

Phelps, Ervin recalled, "always coveted and wanted to be captain, and was never able to quite get it. 'Being Michael' requires such isolation. And other people respect that; he didn't necessarily ask for it. They give him that space because he is the greatest. But this time around, he started reaching out to other people and drew them closer.

"I think it was special for the entire team to see that. It was integral – at least on the men's side. There was a huge gap of seasoned veterans and some very-very young and relatively inexperienced athletes. He was able to bridge that gap and make them greater for this Games than they might have been. They might have needed a second Games to really achieve [what they did].

"He made us all better."

Finally, at the end, Ervin took out his two Rio gold medals, draped them over his neck, posed for photos against a blue wall with white rings, and savored the sweet chimes as they bumped together on his way out.

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Michael Phelps
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anthony ervin
50m freestyle
jim gray
sydney 2000