It's not unusual for an elite athlete to take a year off from the intensity of competition in order to restore body and mind. It's quite another to take a decade off, as swimmer Anthony Ervin did.
As a 19-year-old Cal student, Ervin won gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. He won a pair of world championships in 2001, set records at the 2002 NCAA meet and then essentially disappeared for a decade, swimming-wise.
You could say he dry-docked himself.
"The process of getting back into the sport was simple," he said. "I was switching over from leading a very unhealthy lifestyle for a number of years. I felt compelled to make a return to the water. It was a health thing. I wasn't even thinking of competition."
He is now.
At 31, Ervin has returned to the pool, although he said, "I have an aversion to calling it a comeback."
2nd place, then 1st
Call it what you will. He finished second in the 100 free on Friday at the Santa Clara International Invitational meet, touching in 49.95, well behind South Korean freestyle star Park Taehwan (48.85).
Encouraging to Ervin was the fact he led at the turn in 23.12 and the 50 free is his best event. He returned Saturday for that furious, frothy, event and won by nearly four-tenths of a second in 22.35 over current Cal swimmer William Copeland (22.74).
Ervin, distinctive among his fellow swimmers for his full-sleeve tattoos on both arms, will give it a go at the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., this month, trying to make the U.S. team.
"I'd love to make the team," he said. "When I got back into this, I didn't think about the Olympics at all."
Ervin competed for Cal all four years he was in school but by his own admission he was a feckless student, staying eligible but not exactly on a path to parchment.
"I left without a degree. Not even close to a degree," he said. "I took classes in every department. I got a very unfocused college education. I call it 'College 1.0.' I came back for 2.0."
From 2005 to 2009, Ervin lived in New York. He taught kids to swim at Imagine Swimming in Manhattan (his current sponsor) and played guitar and sang in a number of undistinguished rock 'n' roll bands.
Ervin eventually returned to Berkeley as a student and earned his degree in English in 2010, though still removed from his sport.
"I was an English major, somewhat of a character - the skinny guy in black smoking cigarettes," he said. "I find it revolting now."
Smoking is the one aspect of his "unhealthy lifestyle" that Ervin would admit to. As to anything else, he said, "Nothing I'm going to talk to you about."
It was at Cal's Spieker Aquatics Complex in January of 2011 that Ervin finally got back in the pool, with the aim of improving his health and nothing more.
'That felt good'
"I wanted to do a little more swimming," he said. "I'd gotten in better shape. I started swimming with the (Cal) guys and was able to be somewhat competitive with them. That felt good."
Ervin said Cal women's coach Teri McKeever encouraged him to enter a meet in Oklahoma City and "see what it's like to compete again. I had a great time."
These days Ervin trains at Cal under men's coach Dave Durden and works with the Oakland Undercurrents, teaching swimming to kids who would otherwise have no access to the sport.
"I don't know if his path is to get back to being an elite swimmer," Durden said. "I think his path is finding joy in what he does each and every day. I don't know if he wants to be defined as an elite swimmer."
Yet Ervin has those characteristics that define an elite swimmer, Durden said: "He's very cerebral, very thoughtful, very competitive; doesn't like to lose."
Even if he lost more than a decade of his prime swimming life to, well, life.
"I have no idea where this will take me," Ervin said.
Read more and see the pictures: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/06/02/SP3D1OS2BK.D...