OMAHA, Neb. -- They touched the wall together 12 years ago in the 50-meter freestyle in Sydney. Water churned white by 16 flying arms was still roiling when Anthony Ervin looked up at the identical times of 21.98 seconds and punched his fist in the air once, then twice. Gary Hall Jr. was slower to react, squinting and staring almost uncomprehendingly before he raised one arm and flashed his broad lightning bolt of a smile. They leaned toward each other and clasped hands to celebrate a shared Olympic gold medal.
Improbable as that moment was, their convergence Sunday night eclipsed it.
Nine years after Ervin slipped out of the pool and fled the spotlight, he willingly dove back into the maelstrom. At 31, he notched a personal-best time of 21.60 seconds in the 50 free to qualify for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, finishing .01 behind Cullen Jones. Ervin grinned and waved from the podium as Hall stood nearby on the deck. A minute later, Hall looped a ribbon over Ervin's neck; Ervin lifted his head and a medal settled onto his chest.
They shook hands and hugged. The accordion of time sagged inward for an instant and then stretched back out again.
Shortly afterwards, Ervin surveyed a crowd of reporters standing four deep, waiting to hear from him. He smiled winningly and said, "What can I do for you?" Ervin expressed relief at his achievement and delivered an extended homage to mentors from childhood to the present, crediting his current coaches with rebuilding an athlete with a "broken up ... weak" body and a "fragile" psyche.
"I just want to keep this fun train chugging," he said.
It was a people-pleasing exchange, but Ervin has been clear about the fact that he has returned on his own terms and for his own pleasure. His first incarnation as an Olympian was scripted by others who focused on the symbolism of his mixed-race heritage. He was cast as an ambassador at age 19. It was too much for a free-thinking kid who hadn't defined himself yet. By 2001, when he won the 50 and the 100 at world championships, he was cooked on swimming in general. Ervin is retaining creative control this time.
Under "retirement" in Ervin's Wikipedia biography at one point on Sunday, a boilerplate statement read: "This section is empty. You can help by adding to it." He has been reluctant to do so, filling in a few blanks but deflecting queries that drill too deep.
He surfaced briefly in 2004, auctioning his gold medal on eBay and donating the $17,000 proceeds to Asian tsunami relief. He played in a rock band and taught kids how to swim in New York City and Oakland. Ervin decided to re-enroll at the University of California at Berkeley in 2010 to finish his undergraduate degree in English and began working on a multi-disciplinary master's. In a video interview posted by USA Swimming in March, Ervin said he was "floundering" in grad school when his academic adviser Derek Van Rheenen asked him to write "an autobiography of my life in sport."
"Fifty or so pages later, all of a sudden it was this immediate catharsis where there was like a bunch of baggage, or a chip on my shoulder I just kind of flicked off," he said.
Perhaps that was all the weight he needed to shed to go faster than he ever had. Since Ervin began training in earnest last year under Cal coach Teri McKeever -- who is also the women's Olympic head coach -- he has methodically knocked rust from his times. He arrived in Omaha as a favorite.
Will he replace the medal he let go of? "I hope so," Ervin said. "I'm going to try my best. I'm not controlling what anyone else is doing. There are some incredible swimmers around the world that will be there. All I can promise is I'm going to do what I can."
Hall, 37, probably understands Ervin's fight for equilibrium better than almost anyone. Born into a famous swimming family, endowed with spectacular speed, Hall had a phobia of public speaking and disliked being the center of attention. He invented a campy, colorful stage persona to hide behind and did his best to cope with what Ervin opted to escape.
A diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes forever altered Hall's inward life, although he continued to play the part of swimming superhero until his retirement in 2008. He became active in diabetes-related causes while he was still competing and segued from that into a career as an independent health care consultant; he's working on policy issues with the National Youth Sports Health and Safety Institute.
Hall has taken to riding a road bike in the rolling countryside around Solvang, Calif., where he lives with his wife and two children, and is leaner than he used to be. He chose his words about his old friend with care, keenly aware of the boundaries Ervin has established.
"What Anthony was in 2000 is a large component of what drove him from the sport," Hall said before Sunday's race. "A lot of people wanted to get their claws into him, and psychologically, that took him a long time to process. Clearly, he did not embrace fame, because he had the opportunity to. What's neat to see is that he's returning to something he's always loved, and that is the sport of swimming.
"For him to re-emerge the way he has is remarkable, and it says a lot about what we already knew about Anthony -- he's phenomenally talented. People judge him by his tatt sleeves, but he's meticulous in his preparation and rehearsal. He has a thirst for knowledge and a thirst to be better."
Ervin and Hall will always be deadlocked in their most important race against each other. Hall calls it "the tie that binds." He occasionally reflects on what would have happened if Ervin hadn't left the sport at age 22.
"He retreated to a lifestyle that he had a very romantic vision of, and I was one of the people who benefitted from his exodus," Hall said. "He was absent during the best years of his physical ability. Would I have been the [50 free] gold medalist in 2004 if he'd been there? I don't know. He was always tough to beat."
Their paths diverged again when the medal ceremony concluded. Hall stepped back. Ervin jogged off the podium. He high-fived fans. He nearly ran by emcee Summer Sanders, then took the microphone out of her hands after a couple of questions.
"I'm going to LONDON!" Ervin belted out. He'll take with him only as much as he wants to carry.