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Ervin, swimming's mystery man, returns to the pool

By PAUL NEWBERRY,

AP National Writer

Updated May 18, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Anthony Ervin has never been one to swim with the flow.

A dozen years ago, while still just a teenager, he seemingly came out of nowhere to make the U.S. Olympic team, then topped that by winning gold and silver medals at the Sydney Games. He had the world in his grasp, a dashing young star who was more at home in the pool than he was on land.

"He's really got a gift," said longtime swimming coach Teri McKeever. "He has a great relationship with the water."

But Ervin, it turned out, wanted something more than just touching the wall ahead of everyone else.

At age 22, he walked away from the sport, dropping out of the limelight for eight long years to search for a deeper purpose to life. He sold his Olympic gold to aid victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, lost his silver medal during his various travels, and became a huge enigma to those who wondered how someone with so much talent, so much promise, could give it all up.

"He's the mystery man," said Olympic gold medalist Ricky Berens.

No longer.

The search for Anthony Ervin is over.

"I had heard rumors almost every year that he was coming back," said another gold medalist, Cullen Jones. "I always figured, `All right, that's probably not true.' Until I saw him."

Last year, Ervin eased back into training, not intending to get really serious but intrigued by what he might be able to accomplish as he prepared for that bridge from youth to middle age.

"I think there was something quite distinct about the approach of my 30th birthday that made me come to terms with things," Ervin said during a recent interview at a Grand Prix meet in Charlotte, N.C. "Maybe, I thought, the cement is hard now. Maybe I could be confident in who I am and what I am and just try to just move forward. If I was wet cement before, now it's dry and I'm a boulder and I'm going to start rolling downhill."

Once he got rolling, it was like he'd never been away.

Ervin, at McKeever's urging, turned up at a Masters meet in Oklahoma late last year and posted a time in the 50-meter freestyle that immediately stamped him as an Olympic contender. In January, at his first major meet in Austin, Texas, he finished third in the 50 free and fourth in the 100 free against some of America's top swimmers, stunning results given that he'd only been training seriously for a few months.

Just like that, he was back in the game.

"He's like a legend," Berens said. "He has the perfect freestyle."

Ervin, who turns 31 this month, might've been smoother than anyone else at the pool, but his soul was always churning. Even now, he's far more likely to bring up his favorite poets, or a parable in the Bible, than to discuss the finer points of his marvelous stroke. That's why, after winning two more golds at the 2001 world championships, he turned in his suit and goggles.

He was tired of the regimented life of an athlete.

He needed something more.

"I really felt like I had accomplished every goal I had set out to," Ervin recalled. "It became time to go back and reclaim some of the stuff I had sacrificed along the way."

This where the conversation turns a bit darker.

"I was kind of shot down this tunnel," Ervin went on. "As a youth, as most people are, you're not really given a ton of options for a variety of reasons. When something sticks, people often stay with it. For whatever reason, I couldn't do that. I was convinced the grass would be greener somewhere else. Or, at the least, if I did make the journey, that I would see the other side of that horizon, whatever was there.

"I think everybody's got that to a certain degree. But I certainly had a lot of angst and resistance toward being pushed in the direction I had always been going. I really just needed freedom, so I took it."

Ervin is reticent to discuss what he did after retiring in 2003, saying he hopes to put it all in a book someday. But some notable details trickle out: He didn't live in any one place for more than nine months. He paid bills with swimming lessons and promoting concerts. He took up smoking and played guitar in a band known as "Weapons of Mass Destruction." And part of the reason he agreed to compete in that Masters meet was because he was two months behind on his rent.

With his curly brown hair, he looks much the same as he did in 2000. He wears a studious-looking pair of glasses away from the pool - worthy of someone who graduated from Cal with an English degree and has started work on a master's in education - and he's ditched the earrings that were his trademark in Sydney. Instead, he's covered his body in tattoos marking various milestones in his life - "a narrative in skin," he calls in.

In an interesting twist, his very first tattoo was the Olympic rings, which he got with about a half-dozen of his fellow swimmers after winning gold. That modest design is totally overshadowed now.

"He's an artist, not a swimmer," said former gold medalist Mel Stewart, who covers swimming these days on his through his own website. "We need more people like that in our sport."

McKeever, who will coach the U.S. women's team in London, helped lead Ervin back to the pool. But she went at it cautiously, knowing he had to come back on his own terms. She persuaded him to enroll in the drug-testing program before he ever had any real intention of coming back, planting the idea in his head and quickly backing off.

"I respect Anthony," McKeever said. "Anthony has always stayed true to Anthony. Whether that was good or bad, he went on his own path. A lot of people aren't willing to do that, especially when a lot of people are saying, `What the hell are you doing?' He said, `Well, this is what I feel like I need to do.' So he did it."

For Ervin, that meant giving up his gold medal after the 2004 tsunami claimed around a quarter of a million lives. He auctioned it off for $17,100 and donated the money to disaster relief.

"At the time, I was very much in a mystical phase. I was kind of looking at my own accomplishments in swimming in a lot of ways as hubris, as some excessive pride," Ervin said. "It was right after Christmas when (the tsunami) happened. I was just watching on the news, at how many people died, just crushed by that element. I knew if I had the unfortunate luck of being there, no gold medal for swimming one lap would've spared my life. I wanted to do something to reflect my own remorse, a way to kind of letting go of something for myself and, hopefully, through the process, trying to help in some way. But it was definitely a purging, like a cleansing for myself."

His silver medal is gone, too, but not to some higher purpose.

"I lost the silver," Ervin said with a nonchalant shrug. "I don't know where it is."

Maybe he'll claim some new hardware in London. No matter what happens, he'll enjoy this ride a lot more than he did the last time.

Just don't count on Ervin sitting still for very long.

"Do you have the time by chance?" he asks. Told the night's events have already started, he bolts for the door.

"I've got to go," he exclaims.

This time, Ervin knows where he's going.

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AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this report.

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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