By Phillip Whitten//Contributor | Monday, May 1, 2017
Gather ‘round, swim fans, and pay close attention as I relate to you the story of how two American young men set an Olympic record that’s going to be bloody hard ever to break. Ever.
As I recall, it was Saturday, September 23, 2000, a beautiful, early spring afternoon in Sydney, Australia, and I was sitting behind the Olympic natatorium, chatting with Muhammad Ali. As a tall, handsome young man walked purposefully past us, the boxing immortal asked:
“Say, Phil, who is that goofy-looking guy over there?” Muhammad’s voice was barely a whisper but the smile he wore spelled “mischievous.” I knew who the young man was, and I also knew that Muhammad knew too. The three of us lived just a handful of miles from each other, and we all participated in Muhammad’s “Celebrity Fight Night,” an annual, upscale, celebrity-laden charity event Muhammad sponsored to raise funds for research into Parkinson’s Disease.
“Isn’t that the guy who tied for the gold in the 50 free the other day?” he asked.
“You know it is,” I replied. “It’s Gary Hall, Jr.”
“How long did it take him to do that event?” he questioned.
“Just under 22 seconds,” I replied.
Feigning that this was all news to him, he pondered it, pretending to turn the info over and examine it in his mind “You know,” the boxing great offered, “he ain’t as dumb as he looks. I had to fight four guys a total of 11, three-minute rounds to win my Olympic gold medal. None of them scored a point off me. When I won the (light heavyweight division) crown, I wasn’t even sweating. I was just as pretty at the end of my last fight as I was before the first.” We both laughed. “Still,” he murmured, “twenty-two seconds. Maybe I should take up swimming…”
A day earlier, Gary had joined his Phoenix Swim Club and USA Olympic teammate, Anthony Ervin, on the summit of the victory podium, both men receiving an Olympic gold medal for clocking identical winning times of 21.98 seconds. Both men had earned an Olympic gold medal by the smallest possible margin.
After one event, with a combined margin of victory of precisely zero-point-zero-zero seconds, the two had tallied two Olympic gold medals.
Wait. There’s more.
Tony Ervin – he prefers that friends call him Tony rather than Anthony – still recalls vividly what happened in the seconds right before and after he and Gary won that day: “With a few strokes to go, I could see underwater that I was about even with the leaders, so I just kept my head down and then stretched my arm as far as it could go (and then some)—reaching for the wall. My teammates were going wild, so I looked up at the scoreboard and saw that big ‘1’ next to my name. Then I saw there was a “1” next to Gary’s name too. I realized immediately what had happened: We had tied for the gold!! My teammate and closest friend and I had tied for the gold!
“As I moved toward Gary’s lane to embrace him and acknowledge the crowd, I noticed that he seemed a bit confused and wasn’t celebrating. So I kept pointing to the scoreboard. Finally, he looked at it and this gigantic smile engulfed his face. I thought, nothing could be better than this.”
Gary confirmed Tony’s account of the historic race. “Tony nailed it. At first, all I could see was our teammates celebrating and Tony flashing this big ol’ smile that stretched from ear to ear. He kept pointing to the scoreboard, so I looked and saw that beautiful number ‘1’ next to my name. His name, my name. His name, my name.”
“I got it! We had tied. And we had won! WOW!!!”
Now keep in mind all this happened within the space of about five seconds! But it marked the first time two swimmers from the same team – in this case, the Phoenix Swim Club – touched in tandem in an Olympic final. Both men agreed: In the minds of swim fans, this moment would always define who they were.
But would it? Would each of these men forever just be the guys who won an Olympic gold medal each, with the total victory margin of zero seconds? The answer was quick in coming. But first, it was PARTY TIME!!!
After the post-Olympic celebrations and a brief, much-needed rest, both sprinters were back in the pool again, with Gary determined to place an asterisk on the asterisk he’d already earned. And he did. At the 2004 Olympics, he stunned almost every swimming expert on the planet, whipping a star-studded international field in the 50-meter freestyle, swimming’s shortest, fastest and most explosive event. His time: 21.91 seconds. His margin of victory? Yup, you got it!’ .01 sec.—one one-hundredth of a second. The silver went to another friend and former Phoenix teammate, Duje Draganja of Croatia. So now, Hall had to his credit two shiny gold medals while Ervin had one. Together, they had earned three Olympic gold medals by a combined margin of just one one-hundredth of a second.
Meanwhile, Tony was struggling. He continued to train, but each month was missing more and more training sessions. Unlike his teammate and friend, Tony Ervin just could not keep his focus on swimming.
He was haunted by the death and devastation wrought by the great Asian tsunami that killed nearly 300,000 people. He auctioned his Olympic gold medal on eBay and donated the entire $17,000 he received to tsunami relief. Still, he could not reconcile the seeming cosmic indifference to the suffering of so many innocent people. He began to lose focus. He was depressed. He felt trapped, paralyzed.
Then, one day, he awoke to an unexpected feeling of cleansing, of an infusion of energy and the stirrings of a new sense of purpose. Encouraged, he began training again with no particular goal in mind. Being immersed in the crystal clear waters of Cal’s Spieker Pool just felt wonderful. And when he decided to compete again, he found, to his surprise, he was faster than ever.
Now, there was only one final Act to be played. Amazingly, each man played his part to perfection and Tony Ervin emerged victorious yet again. He won the 50 free at the 2016 US Olympic Trials, then went on to Rio, where he won by [everybody, all together now]: “One one-hundredth of a second!!!”
His winning time: 21.40 seconds was precisely – yes, again – one-hundredth of a second faster than France’s Florant Manaudou. Anthony’s win made him, at 35, the oldest person ever to win Olympic gold in swimming. And the 16 years between victories is the longest ever.
And that, my friends, is the story of how Gary Hall and Anthony Ervin won a total of four Olympic gold medals by a combined margin of two-hundredths of a second.
Oh, one last thing: I spoke with Tony after his victory in Rio. He was laughing. “It’s absurd that I could win an Olympic gold medal at the age of 35, and so many years after the first one. That’s why I’ll be going out to make the team in 2020. Why not? I’ll only be 39…”