How Sweet the Sound

by Casey Barrett

The Comeback of Anthony Ervin

It was a long shot. The sort of thing that almost always ends badly, no matter the lessons learned spin in the aftermath of defeat. The hunger returns, the training resumes, the dreams of glory are back. Then they learn, the hard way, that it’s been too long. You’re not so young anymore. You’re no longer fast enough.

Except not this time.

This time, after a decade away, Anthony Ervin stepped on the blocks in the men’s 50 free and blistered onto the Olympic Team at age 31. A dozen years removed from the last time he was on this stage, back in 2000. Ervin is faster now than he was back then, when he was a 19-year-old wunderkind tying Gary Hall, Jr. for gold in Sydney.

The years in between? An unguided tour through Dante’s Inferno. Followed by a pass through Purgatory. And now, back to Paradise…

Before I continue, this program note: There is absolutely no objectivity here. For parts of those lost years, Ervin worked for my school, Imagine Swimming. Even at his most lost – and that was evident to all who knew him then – he was always great with the kids. They identified with him in that natural instinctual way of children. Kids have a hound dog’s sense for smelling a fake. In Ervin, they smelled some truth. Also some danger, which kids like too.

As his comeback flashed promise with big in-season swims this winter, a mutual friend approached my partner Lars and I with an idea: Why doesn’t Imagine sponsor him? Unlike all the others, this comeback of his really seemed to be shaping up. Brilliant idea, thought Lars and I. We got on the phone with Tony and hashed out an agreement.

Perhaps it’s unprofessional of me to be writing about a guy we quite literally bet on. Talk about bias. So be it. His story is just too good. A true Hero’s Quest. Joseph Campbell would have loved it.

As sports fans, we love domination, sure. There’s nothing like watching sheer outsized superhuman greatness. Phelps and Lochte, those are our versions of Lebron and Durant. It’s impossible to relate, and so we worship.

But there’s nothing we love more than the comeback story. The all-too-human damaged star that somehow finds his way back. Guys like Andre Agassi and Josh Hamilton… and Anthony Ervin. They have superhuman athletic gifts too, but they’ve also succumbed to many dark impulses. When they come out the other side, they’re the ones embraced in a way those icons never are.

Throughout the weekend, Tony’s many friends and fans were sharing all-time Tony stories. There are many. One involves a wedding dress, running make-up, and an angry mob… Really. But the Tony story that I’ve always remembered most is one of those quiet, confused moments.

After he left New York and Imagine and headed back to Berkeley, Tony would reappear unannounced on deck from time to time. Once, I think it was back in early 2009 or so, he appeared on a pool deck in TriBeCa looking his most un-Olympian.

“Are you lost?” I asked him, not so nicely.

“Casey, you have no idea,” he said.

He didn’t smile, showed no spark at all. Then, a few Imagine kids started to show up and the old Ervin energy reappeared for them right on cue.

That magnetic energy was on full display this week in Omaha. If you knew him in those lost years, the contrast was striking. Like the breath of life was breathed back into a body after years of gasping and wandering without oxygen.

In his ultra-eloquent post-race interviews, between Old Testament references and big word droppings, he’s been careful to thank the many who’ve seen him through this journey. When he was on his descent, touring the various levels of the Inferno, Ervin seemed alone, even among friends. Now he’s well aware that he’s never been alone at all.

As the gospel goes – “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see…”

Amazing grace, indeed.