OMAHA, Neb. — Anthony Ervin capped an improbable comeback by earning a trip to the Olympics.
Ervin, who tied Gary Hall Jr. for gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Games, finished second behind Cullen Jones in that event at the U.S. trials on Sunday night, good enough for a spot in London.
The 31-year-old sprinter was one of the sport’s rising stars when he stunningly walked away in 2003, burned out on swimming and yearning to find a deeper meaning to life. He even auctioned off his gold medal to aid tsunami victims.
But Ervin returned to training last year and quickly got back up to speed. Jones touched first in 21.59 seconds, but Ervin got there next (21.60).
“I touched the wall and then I looked at the scoreboard, but I couldn’t tell what happened,” said Ervin, who wears glasses on dry land. “I wasn’t sure what happened, and then Nathan (Adrian) looked at me and said, ‘You made it!’ So it was overwhelming relief.”
Ervin sold his gold medal from Sydney for $17,100 and donated the proceeds to help victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. He readily admits to losing his silver from the 400 free relay in those games.
So winning a medal in London would replenish his stock.
“The medal is up there. Whether I can land one or not, I hope so,” Ervin said. “I’m going to try my best. I’m not controlling what anyone else is doing. There are incredible swimmers around the world that will be there. All I can promise is I’m going to do what I can.”
Jones and Ervin posted the second- and third-fastest times in the world this year, trailing only defending Olympic champion Cesar Cielo of Brazil, who has swum 21.38.
Ervin was ecstatic during a post-race interview with former Olympian Summer Sanders. He grabbed the microphone out of her hand and shouted, “The journey continues, because I’m going to Londonnnnn!” Then, after slamming it to the deck with a loud thud, he took off on a victory lap around the arena, soaking up the cheers of 12,406 fans.
“I am surprised to be here at all,” said Ervin, whose has a sleeve of tattoos on each arm and turns interviews into a discussion on everything from philosophy to Biblical parables.
He spent eight years working odd jobs, moved from California to New York and then back again, and finished his college degree at California. In Berkeley, Ervin was coaching young kids at the pool when he eventually got together with Golden Bears women’s coach Teri McKeever.
“She inherited a very fragile, mentally is the best word for it, kind of persona, and she brought back what it was like to swim for fun and enjoy it myself,” he said.
During his initial Olympic success, Ervin was swimming at Cal under men’s coach Mike Bottom, now at Michigan.
“That guy helped me reach the top, and when I insisted on land sliding myself down, he was there for me,” Ervin said. “But at the end of it, I knew that he didn’t just care about Anthony Ervin the swimmer, he cared about Anthony Ervin the person, and that means more than ever.”
After spending several minutes crediting McKeever and Bottom, along with everyone from his youth to club coaches, Ervin paused, his mouth dry. Then he smiled.
“I just want to keep this fun train chugging,” he said.
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