By Chase McFadden//Contributor | Monday, December 26, 2016
Wow. Who saw that coming?
Sure, many athletes have competed in multiple Olympic Games. Many have won multiple individual golds. But doing so 16 years apart? That’s an exclusive group. In fact, membership may consist solely of Anthony Ervin.Sixteen years after tying for the Olympic title in the 50 meter freestyle at the Sydney Games, Ervin returned to swimming’s grandest stage in 2016 and sprinted to the top of the podium once again – in the process becoming the oldest swimmer to ever win individual gold.
To say the 35-year-old took the road less traveled to Rio is an understatement.
In 2011, Ervin – evolved in mind and spirit – was drawn back to his chlorinated past. He began training once again, and qualified for the 2012 United States squad bound for London. Medals eluded him at the Games, but he emerged from the experience freshly-inspired and committed to continuing on with his calling.
Which leads us to Rio, where Ervin – a co-captain for Team USA – provided leadership and mentorship to a predominantly young squad.
“As captain of a team that is a mix of both seasoned veterans and very young athletes, I knew together we could accomplish all of the goals we could set for ourselves,” Ervin said. “We led through example, but also we led through preparing them for what to expect. I guess they expected to do quite well.”
Quite well, indeed: the Rio 2016 contingent will go down in history as one of the greatest collectives of swimmers ever assembled. Ervin believes that Team USA’s dominant showing was due to a deeply-felt camaraderie every bit as much as raw talent.
“Absolutely our team cohesion was so strong that when the ball started rolling, we had great momentum as a team. Everybody wanted to follow up and continue to swim out of themselves and swim for something more than they were before.
“The team was doing exceptionally well; beyond a lot of expectations,” Ervin explained. “When you have that kind of momentum, and the morale of the team and everybody around you is so high, it's easy to step in and be your best self.
“That includes me. Almost the last day of competition, and the old guy gets on the blocks and brings home a gold for the rest of the team.”
In an incredibly close finish – norm for the 50 meter sprint – Ervin touched first in the final, one one-hundredth of a second ahead of Frenchman Florent Manaudou.
Realizing the magnitude of what he’d just accomplished with that gold-medal touch, Ervin triumphantly straddled the lane line, flexed his heavily-inked arms and roared. It was a reaction wrought with emotion that culminated a historic comeback – personally and competitively – and paid homage to those who helped him get there.
“I knew that I had family and friends in that stadium,” Ervin said. “I just wanted to let loose the biggest noise I could to make sure they heard me. Hopefully that was a sound that was heard all the way back in the States where everybody else I know is cheering. I actually have friends around the world, too, that were paying attention.
“Maybe the strength of that yell didn't reach them, but I tried to muster the energy from deep in my core.”
A core that over 35 years found peace and meaning, belonging and redemption. A road less traveled, certainly, but a journey oh-so worth it.