Ervin, Anthony 1981–

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Anthony Ervin 1981–

Olympic swimmer

At the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, the American sprinter Anthony Ervin tied for gold with his teammate Gary Hall in the 50-meter freestyle event, with a time of 21.98 seconds. It was only the second gold-medal tie in the history of Olympic swimming. Ervin had made history twice—he was also the first black to ever qualify for the U.S. Olympic Swim Team. Ervin also won a silver medal as a member of the 400-meter freestyle relay team. In May of 2005 he auctioned off his gold medal on eBay, donating the $17,100 to tsunami relief.

Swam for the Berkeley Bears

Anthony Ervin was born on May 26, 1981, in Burbank, California, to a Jewish mother and a black/ Native American father. He grew up in Santa Clarita, California, and swam with his brothers at a club in nearby Valencia. Ervin told the Daily News in 2000, “it was my dream to make the Olympic team since I first started at 6 or 7.” Ervin swam well until, at age twelve, he failed to qualify for upper-level competition. He switched to archery and began training in kickboxing and basketball. However, it turned out that a case of mononucleosis had affected his swim times, and Ervin returned to the pool. By his freshman year in high school he was breaking records.

Ervin was the top-ranked high-school sprinter in the nation and was named “Most Valuable Swimmer” by the Southern Section of the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF). However, he was an erratic student, and his teachers complained to coach Steve Neale that Ervin hardly tried in class and was sometimes insolent. Yet Ervin graduated high school with a straight-A average and scored very high on advanced-placement tests. He had scholarship offers from the University of California at Berkeley and from Stanford University. The Berkeley sprint coach Mike Bottom was the deciding factor. Bottom had an unusual training program that Ervin liked. In addition, Bottom insisted that his swimmers have some balance in their lives. Ervin told Bob Schaller of the USA Swimming Web site: “That has been extremely important. We're told that if we want to be the best, we have to dedicate our all. Now, if I were to dedicate my all [to just swimming], I would be burned out. If you tie yourself down with one thing, you will not get on with your life.”

Ervin's rise was incredibly fast. In barely one year he progressed from CIF Southern Section titles to National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships to Olympic Gold. At the 2000 NCAA Championships Ervin won the 50- and 100-meter freestyle races, setting a short-course world record in the 50-meter race. He began training at the Phoenix Swim Club in Arizona with Mike Bottom's Sprint Team 2000, made up of swimmers from various countries preparing for the 2000 Olympics. Teammate Hall told Sports Illustrated: “A lot of guys didn't like him at first. I didn't like him at first. He's very confident. It's a good thing, self-confidence, because if you don't have confidence in this sport, you're not going to make it, but he'd push it. The more I knew him, the more I liked him, but I still wanted to wring his neck about every other day.”

Became a Celebrity

After Ervin qualified for the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team he was besieged by the media. The resulting stories all focused on his race. He told Schaller: “All of these people are putting these labels on me. They wanted to make me a part of whatever pertained to them…. When you strive for something and do well, it's always going to be a double-edged sword. You reach your goals, but you will get cut in the process.” He told Sports Illustrated: “I want to be a role model, but I want to be a role model for all kids. People try to say I'm one thing or another. I don't think it's a big deal being from mixed heritage these days in America.”

At nineteen Ervin was four years younger than any of the other Olympic sprinters. He was relatively small and had no international experience. His body rotation was unusual. Ervin told Schaller: “My work, as a sprinter, is done through technique, with the proper catch and hold in the water. That's the toughest part, getting the most out of every stroke. It's not easy. Of course, we put in the work, do the aerobic training and everything else.” After the 50-meter event Ervin told Sports Illustrated for Kids: “I didn't know where I was…. The first thing I saw when I looked at the scoreboard was that it was a tie…. I thought, ‘I tied with my own teammate; it couldn't have worked out better than this.’”

Ervin was quickly proclaimed one of the best natural sprinters in the history of swimming. He appeared on NBC's Today show and became a local hero. Sponsorship offers poured in, but Ervin turned them down. He did not want to forfeit his amateur status and college eligibility. He thought there was plenty of time. In 2001 Ervin was U.S. National Champion and World Champion in both the 50- and 100-meter freestyle. He was considered the best swimmer in the world. However, four years later with his college swimming career at an end, his only sponsorship offer was a small contract from Speedo.

Retired from Swimming

Ervin's last competition was the 2003 world championships. When his NCAA eligibility expired that year Ervin left school, just one semester short of earning his degree in interdisciplinary studies. He had bounced among majors from neuroscience to religious studies to philosophy, always reading—but rarely what was required for his classes. Although his qualifying time still stood, Ervin did not compete in the 2004 Olympic trials. He lost his Speedo contract. He told the Daily Californian: “I feel like that part of my life—as a competitor—is over. I'm moving on to new things, new goals, new ambitions.”

Ervin remained in Berkeley studying classical music and composing, singing, and playing guitar with the rock band Weapons of Mass Destruction. He told the Daily Californian: “I want to be a musician, ultimately. I'm hoping I can still make people go crazy, but in a different form.” Meanwhile he worked in a tattoo parlor.

Then in December of 2004 Ervin conducted a series of swimming clinics with Hall in Japan and began to consider returning to competition, perhaps tied to a charity. A week later the tsunami hit Southeast Asia and Ervin decided to donate the proceeds from his gold medal. He told USA Today: “It's really easy for anybody to be a good example and I certainly could have done a better job in the past. Hopefully, I'm making up some ground for that now.”

At a Glance …

Born Anthony Lee Ervin on May 26, 1981, in Burbank, CA; son of Sherry and Jack Ervin. Religion: Zen Buddhist. Education: Attended University of California, Berkeley, 1999-03.

Career: Sprint swimmer, Southern Section of the California Interscholastic Federation, Newhall, CA, 1995-99, NCAA, University of California, Berkeley, 1999-2003, U.S. Olympic Swim Team, 2000; Imagine School of Swimming, New York, NY, instructor, 2006.

Memberships: New York City Hydras Swim Club.

Selected awards: Olympic Games, gold medal for 50-meter freestyle, silver medal for 400-meter freestyle relay, 2000; World Championships, Fukuoka, Japan, gold medals for 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle, 2001; Pac-10 Swimmer of the Year, 2002; National Jewish Museum Sports Hall of Fame.

In January of 2005 Ervin started training with Bottom again. However, in March of 2006 he moved to Brooklyn, New York. There he stayed with Olympic swimmer Erik Vendt, who got him a job coaching beginners at the Imagine School of Swimming. The kids loved Ervin's tattoos. In New York he composed songs and played with two rock bands and an acoustic group. Bottom told the Daily News in 2006: “I just don't think he understood that [swimming] is a gift….” But Ervin told the Daily News: “I'm not going to just go back into swimming just for the sake of swimming. I have an agenda if I'm going to go back into the public eye as an Olympian. Because I know I can make the team again…. The high that you get from music when you're writing something as a band, and it all comes together, it's irreplaceable. You can't get that in swim- ming. In swimming, all you get is training … boosting your own ego to make you better than the rest.”

As of 2007 Ervin was swimming with the New York City Hydras Masters Swim Team. He had a time of 19:98 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle at the New England Short Course Yards Championship. A practicing Zen Buddhist, Ervin told Schaller: “I ask myself all the time, ‘Who am I? What am I doing?’ What I've found is that if I think too much, it won't make me too happy. I'm better off to be there—in that moment—and just be who I am.”



Daily News (Los Angeles), April 17, 2000, p. S22; October 22, 2006, p. S1.

San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 2000, p. A1; April 29, 2005, p. D2.

Sports Illustrated, October 2, 2000, p. 51.

Sports Illustrated for Kids, December 1, 2000, p. 52.

USA Today, May 8, 2005.


“Anthony Ervin,” USA Swimming, (accessed October 25, 2007).

“Anthony Ervin Profile,” Cal Bears, (accessed October 25, 2007).

“Olympic Gold Medalist Anthony Ervin Gives up Swimming, Fame and Money,” The Daily Californian, (accessed October 25, 2007).

—Margaret Alic