OMAHA, Nebraska, June 26. IF the script had been rewritten, maybe we could be here talking about one of the greatest sprinters in history. Maybe his name would be mentioned in the same breath as Alex Popov or Pieter van den Hoogenband. Instead, when Anthony Ervin's name is raised, the consensus thought goes something like this: He could have achieved so much more.
In 2000 and 2001, Ervin was one of the world's premier swimmers. At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, he shared the gold medal in the 50 freestyle with teammate Gary Hall Jr. A year later, he won the gold medal in the 100 freestyle at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. After that, Ervin disappeared.
Lacking the interest to dedicate himself to a career in the sport, Ervin ventured into other things. He was interested in charitable causes, and even auctioned off his Olympic gold medal to support relief efforts related to the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, a gesture which says a lot about his character and humanitarian ways. He got into music. He bounced around to various locales. While he stayed connected to swimming through teaching lessons, it wasn't competition.
"The biggest factor (in walking away) was the time I needed to figure things out," Ervin said. "I needed to be unfettered by the discipline needed in a professional sport."
Last year, though, Ervin decided to make a return. Training under Dave Durden at his former collegiate home, California-Berkeley, Ervin didn't set out to land an Olympic bid. Rather, it was a feeling-out process, a gauge of what he could do. It just happened to turn out that Ervin -- blessed with raw sprinting talent -- had enough time to make himself an Olympic contender.
Had Ervin not left the sport, we might be talking about a guy with seven, eight or nine Olympic medals. We might be talking about a guy who set a few world records, or who redefined sprinting. Of course, we're not. Still, late is better than never and having Ervin back in the mix could be a boon to American swimming if he shines this week, more than a decade after his first Olympic Trials.
With the way the Australians performed at their Olympic Trials back in March, the United States will have a tough go in the 400 free relay in London. Aussie James Magnussen has emerged as the top 100 freestyler in the world and his presence could sway the relay in a big way. We'll surely have a better feel for the 400 free relay later in the week, but Ervin could be a key factor for the United States. If Ervin rekindles his past form, or better, the prognostications for an Australian triumph might be tempered.
Ervin will open his Trials on Thursday with the preliminaries of the 100 freestyle and is slated to contest the 50 freestyle on Saturday. Ervin's best chance in the 100 free is nailing down a relay berth. Individually, the 50 free is his best opportunity. The good news is that Ervin isn't looking at this comeback as a brief return.
"I don't have any regrets," he said. "What could have been? I don't know the answer to that. But I'm privileged to be here now."
Earning a spot on the Olympic team is not a far-fetched possibility for Ervin, either. True, Nathan Adrian and Jimmy Feigen might be better bets, but who is going to overlook an Olympic champion, especially one with pure sprinting skill. Beyond this summer, Ervin has no plans of vanishing again, which is an even better sign for American sprinting.
"I plan on sticking around for a little while," he said. "Six or seven months ago, I didn't expect to be in contention (for an Olympic bid) and here I am. I would like to do some things I didn't get the chance to do when I was younger, like going to the World Cup. I'm going to continue to compete here and abroad. I'd like to see a couple more years."