Ervin speaks from experience—of the kind that’s unique to the sporting world. While most world-class athletes struggle to return to the top of their craft after long breaks from the sport—most often injury-induced breaks—and battle to stay relevant after the age of 30—when form usually starts to go downhill—he did both.
His was one of the top stories of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics—both nostalgic and awe-inspiring. Ervin won a gold medal in the 50m freestyle event—at 35, the oldest to ever win an individual swimming medal. He had won gold (shared with Gary Jr. Hall) in the 2000 Sydney Olympics in the same event—a gap of 16 years between medals.
Ervin’s story is remarkable because in 2003, at the age of 22, he had quit the sport. His second individual Olympic medal followed his return to the sport in 2011 after nearly a decade spent in a haze of obscurity, hallucinogenic substances, attempts at self-discovery—and no swimming at all.
He says his exit and return to the sport were organic processes. “There was little that was planned, other than to assert my own control over my life when I walked away," Ervin says over the phone from the capital where he was the brand ambassador for the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon held on 19 November.
“It was deliberate on my part to find my own path—where it went was not mine (choice). The ride back to the Olympics was organic. After training for six months, I finished fifth (in the 2012 London Olympics) and I realized I could be better with four years’ training (for Rio). The results were an unplanned level of achievement."
When he quit the sport partly out of disillusionment, he auctioned his Sydney medal and gave the proceeds to the Unicef tsunami relief fund. What followed was a period of debauchery—which included mind-altering drugs, alcohol, a spell in prison, a failed suicide attempt due to tranquillizer overdose and a bike accident triggered by a high-speed chase by the police. He covered his body with tattoos, formed a heavy metal music band called Weapons of Mass Destruction and sought solace in religion.
But while doing a master’s degree in sport, culture and education at the University of California in Berkeley, US, in 2010-11, he had to write a paper for the course which turned out to be a turning point.
“I wrote that paper about my life in sport and there was an immediate catharsis and desire to reclaim my body," he says. “After the final paper, I smoked my last cigarette and with no intention of being a competitor, turned all the energy to the pool."
“Epiphanies come every day but most are false epiphanies," he adds, laughing. “There is truth in them—wanting to be creative and curious, realize unfulfilled potential, to be able to discover those things…. Like how it is from science—so much is learnt from what doesn’t work."
In May 2016, just months before the trials for Rio, his coach David Marsh introduced him to the Swedish Kistler Performance Analysis System—“a bunch of computers and cameras" that provide instant data and performance parameters to help coaches and athletes make changes in technique—that catalysed his success.
“There was a eureka moment. I was able to see my weakness and where I was losing my energy. My start (to a race) has always been my Achilles heel, but I was able to identify the problem and solve it in less than an hour. After that, my start was fixed—from being one of the worst."
Ervin’s life and career are well-documented in his 2016 book Chasing Water: Elegy Of An Olympian.
He has now set his sights on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics—by which time he would be nearly 40, a fossil in the world of sport. “I still think I can be better. I expect my country to produce swimmers who will beat me at some point. I will congratulate them and maybe, I would have helped them become better.
“Swimming is an activity you can have your entire life," he says as a way of explaining why so many top swimmers—including Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe—retired and returned.
“We are still extending our ability of (understanding) what age means, to get stronger and better. Even in your pension years you can swim. It’s deeply personal, meditative—chasing that black line (in a pool) back and forth. There is a sensory deprivation going on—nothing to hear or taste, not even gravity… just manipulating the water."
He does not see himself as a role model, but is aware that perhaps others do, so feels the need to take some responsibility for that.
“My abilities always exceeded my beliefs in myself—relative to others. It’s a contradiction, I know, in competitive sport, but I don’t think of my competitors as adversaries, we all are trying for the same thing together.
“I just happened to win."