The iconoclast Anthony Ervin fancied himself as another Jim Morrison while earning an English degree at Cal a few years ago.
"I was the tattooed, skinny student in all black smoking cigarettes," Ervin said.
Now a graduate student in Cal's school of education, Ervin has moved past the notion of expressing himself through verse.
His fire has been lit by returning to the pool 12 years after winning a gold medal in the 50 meters freestyle at the Sydney Games.
Ervin, 31, made progress Saturday at the 45th Santa Clara Grand Prix by winning the sprint in 22.35 seconds, well ahead of training partner Will Copeland.
It was Ervin's first victory since deciding to come back six months ago for another shot at Olympic glory.
"It's a prime example of what is possible in swimming," said Tyler Clary, who won the 400 individual medley and 200 backstroke Saturday.
Ervin isn't sure what's possible. But he knows what he wants: an Olympic medal.
Ervin no longer has the two he won in Australia. He auctioned off his gold medal to donate $17,100 to disaster relief after the 2004 tsunami in the Pacific. Ervin has no idea what happened to his silver medal in the 400 freestyle relay.
But the would-be poet-musician never cared much for the material world. That was part of the reason he drifted away from athletics after bursting onto the world scene in 2000 to become the first swimmer of African-American heritage to make a U.S Olympic team.
"I didn't know anything," he said of those times. "I didn't know what I was going through, what I was feeling."
Ervin was expected to lead American sprinters for the next two Olympics -- or perhaps more. But just like that it was over. He dabbled in music while living in New York City.
Ervin was recruited by a former Cal teammate to help coach at the Imagine Swimming club in New York. It helped him reconnect with the sport.
A year and a half ago, Ervin returned to the pool in Berkeley while earning his undergraduate degree in 2011. Cal coach Dave Durden called it "splashing around."
Then Cal women's coach Teri McKeever suggested the sprinter go to a masters meet in December. He did well enough to consider taking it more serious.
Ervin took the recent semester off from school to try to make the U.S. team. His best chance is finishing first or second in the 50 freestyle at the U.S. trials in three weeks.
Whatever happens, Ervin sounds happy.
"It's just a different journey for him now," Durden said.