VICE Sports Q&A: Olympic Gold Medalist Anthony Ervin on Life In and Out of the Pool
One of the most fascinating Olympians in recent memory discusses the Olympics, race, Michael Phelps and his upcoming book.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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Sixteen years ago, at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, it seemed well within the scope of possibility that Anthony Ervin would qualify for the 2016 Olympics as a 35-year-old. The 19-year-old Los Angeles native won gold in the 50-meter freestyle. One year later, at 20, he became world champion in both the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events. Ervin, who is biracial, even became a reluctant social figure by virtue of becoming the first African-American swimmer in history to win an Olympic medal. Natalie Coughlin, the 12-time Olympic medalist, called him the most naturally gifted swimmer she ever saw.
Then, at 21, Ervin walked away from the sport entirely due to burnout. He spent the next eight years on a bicoastal odyssey, marked by everything from tattoos to womanizing to heavy drug use to joining a rock band to philosophical and religious exploration. By his own admission, he nearly died on multiple occasions, including once by attempting suicide. And then, at 31, he completed one of the most improbable comebacks in Olympic history, finishing fifth in Beijing in the 50 meter free.
Today, he is co-captain of the U.S. men's swimming team and is training to make the 2016 Olympic team. On April 5th, he and co-author Constantine Markides will release his memoir, Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian through Akashic Books.
VICE Sports sat down with Ervin in March to discuss the book, the Olympics, race, conformity within sports, Michael Phelps and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE Sports: There's a quote in the book that, I think, summarizes the entire idea. You said "I've always felt the story of my life has been about being normal but on the fringes of abnormality and it's the fringes that separate my life from the rest." What makes you say that?
Anthony Ervin: I suppose we can take it to the idea of the resistance to homogeny within how one personally identifies. That I, or we, or anybody is not an absolute anything. That we're always mixed with some intersection or overlapping of sense of self and identity. But at the same time in our star-studded culture, growing up in L.A. – there's fame, rock stars and now there are internet celebrities, whatever that means – which it's almost, as I think about it, kind of funny because Andy Warhol kind of predicted that, right? Seven minutes of fame, or whatever; that's basically the internet now. But this tension between being ordinary and how disappointing that can be, but then you also kind of covet that if you're on the bad side of not being normal.
Right, because not doing that leads to isolation.
Isolation, for sure. If you don't feel like you're normal, you feel isolated from the rest. The tension between being ordinary and being extraordinary. And extraordinary can be a good thing, like you have some kind of gift or talent. Or it can mean aw, you're special. [laughs]. Like with the air quotes. You don't want to be special in air quotes. But you want to be special. And there is that tension between the normal and being on the fringes of it. Being not quite there but not quite completely weird and out there. You're not completely sociopathic and psychotic but nor are you baseline completely blending in.
After reading it, the book feels a journey toward self-actualization. Fair to say?
That's very generous of you to think I'm self-actualized [laughs]
What's your un-generous opinion of it, then?
It's a journey. It's a memoir. It's, at best, a distillation of 30 years. At worst, it's just chaos on pages. There should be some rhyme or reason – I tried to do that. I was a book guy, even growing up as a kid, and you read about that. My books became my source of escape in a lot of ways but also a source of learning and understanding, of building my own internal worlds. Some other person wrote those books. It's their way of relating their lives in some other form and I, in a postmodernist theory kind of way, take that and make it my own.
But what made you want people to read your story?
There's that theme of cowardice and courage in the book. I wanted to make the conscientious effort not to be afraid. So I need to do it but I need to do it the way Sun Tzu would do it – you know, where it's deliberate. If I'm going to go into battle with this, I need to do it in a way that I think I have the best possible chance of success. Some people I've talked to about the book are like 'Man, it's a tell-all!' It's definitely not a tell-all (laughs).
It's a tell-some. It's a tell-a-lot. It's a tell-a-lot of things a lot of people wouldn't want to do. But I know. To the point where there are definitely people involved where they did not want any of that stuff out there and I respected that. Sometimes I took it on my own shoulders. Sometimes I disguised it in anonymity. I totally get that. It's not for me to out them when I was outed myself. The original question, before I got distracted, why do it? It was really that if I'm going to show some sense of growth – something about performing at that super high, high level and the way the media operates – and I have theories on the media – essentially, you know how Marx writes about capitalism? As like this all-consuming maw that devours everything? I think the media is the same way of human culture. It's kind of indiscriminate but it has to eat.
I'm media and I definitely understand that.
But you're a person. You're a human being with a history you were thrown into this universe with and a personal story. You're a cog in this wheel in this large thing, just like I am for any other number of things as well – entities, institutions.
The individual choice comes when, if you're the cog, do you grease the wheels and make sure the machine flows in the way it wants to, or at least try do it in your own way. There are different kinds of people in media, like people in any profession. And I suppose in some ways that leads to you being questioned about the black experience after you won your gold medal in Sydney.
And that's the thing. The beast must be fed. If you don't learn how to appease the beast in your own way, it'll just devour you whole.
Is that why you gave a stock answer?
Eh, because I had nothing else to give, really. As far as that question, because I feel like the media was really looking for something else, because the media at that point – from the angle they were coming from, is very, very, very, very ultra-white. If they knew anything about me, they would have known it was the wrong question to ask me.
It's been 16 years. Things are different for you at this stage of your life versus when you were still a teenager. How much of a role does race play in your story now? How much should it play?
It plays as big a role as it does for anybody or it should for anybody who has any inquisitiveness about where they came from. I think we all kind of should, right? Maybe some people, it doesn't matter, they live completely in the now and the future. But every single one of us is thrown into this universe with a history we didn't choose, from a lineage that preceded us and there's a certain momentum to that. There's certain things you can change and certain things you can't. There's degrees of choice, spectrums of choice and they're not the same. It's not equal in that sense. First thing you asked me when I walked in, do you prefer Anthony or Tony? The irony is it's the first thing – like, we come into this world and a name is chosen for us. Names are loaded. They have a history. The name Anthony has a history behind it. Michael has a history. And to a certain degree that shapes you, who you are, before you can even begin to know yourself.
So when they're asking you at the Olympics how it feels to be black, they're not really interested in your answer or exploring your history and the relationship you have with that. They're asking you in a 20 second soundbite.
There are limits, right?
That's the thing. The degree to which nuance can be allowed into the story.
Yeah. And so, if I was to be asked now? You want your 20 second soundbite?
Well, not my 20 second soundbite.
(Laughs). Their 20 second soundbite. "Well, yes, I am African American but you know what? I write about things in that book that we've seen in the last few years, in the last few years, cops kill black people for. But I don't get killed for it. Does that make me black?"
That would make a lot of white people very uncomfortable.
Well, black lives matter. Absolutely they do. And their lives face a jeopardy that those that don't – there's a certain depth of blackness that their lives become jeopardized by the state itself, in a way that mine isn't. So do I have the right to then represent blackness in the now?
And what conclusion have you come to?
You don't think you do?
Not as a representative for those who are actually in danger. I will stump for them. I will say that it is wrong, that I'm not a policy maker but it should not be. It should not be. But I am not in the grip of that danger. I don't have the "darkness" about me.
Throughout the book you flirted on and off for years with the idea of returning to swimming before it truly happened in earnest. Was there one moment that brought you to the point where you knew you were going to be doing this again or was it more organic?
It was definitely more organic. I've always had much more success with the organic as opposed to very regimented programs. Even this, the buildup to the 2016 Olympics, like there is a definite plan and regimentation and expectation, and I have way more doubt now than I did four years ago because there was none of that. I was just strengthened by an 'ignorance is bliss' kind of thing.
Even four years ago?
Even four years ago. It was almost a repetition of 2000. In 2000, I wouldn't have voiced any 'I ain't gonna do it! No one's gonna stop me!' In 2012, why should I have believed that I was going to make the Olympic team again? After not doing it for nine years, not trying to take it seriously, with only a year, year-and-a-half of prep. To think that, in 12 years, that the world hadn't gotten good enough to push me out? Which is what happens to everybody eventually. It's not that people get older and their skills get worse. It's that your ability to get better is trumped by the rate at which youth could get better. They can just get better faster. Standards keep going up and up and up. Why would I think in 2012 that I was still the cutting edge? Because I knew I wasn't. This time around, I feel like I've got a lot riding on making it to the Olympics again. I've got a big investment, not only personally but socially. I've been captain of the national team for the last couple of years and I don't want those guys going into battle without me. I want to be there for them. But that also means I need to be at the kind of strength that earns my way onto that team. It's a whole different kit and caboodle this time around.
Which is a different expectation from the outside. Because they probably see you at 34 and think 'It would be great if he makes it.' But for you, there's a new standard that you need to, which is different even from where you were four years ago.
Absolutely. Yeah, I have a certain age and that's something to be considered as far as just how I train and stuff and how I continue to find ways of getting better. I don't know, there's a lot of factors that determine the age at which people do this thing. I don't earn enough money as an athlete in an Olympic sport to have a family. Sure, I can support myself and it is a struggle – I have to do other things to make ends meet in a state like California. If I were somewhere else, it probably wouldn't be as bad, but California is a lot tougher. But I'm 34 – most of my friends, if they aren't settled down already, they're aiming to do it. That's kind of like the goal. Most swimmers, even Olympic-caliber swimmers, can't really do that.
So there's the socioeconomic factors. There's the sense of you've done – you may have to deal with the idea that you've already done the best you can do and you're not going to get any better. And you've poured your all into it – emotionally, physically – and that you have nothing left to prove. There are a lot of people out there who think I have nothing left to prove. But I do have something I have to prove.
I'll tell you later (laughs). I'm not letting that one go.
You've trained at different levels of intensity. The first time, there was a lot of buildup where you weren't especially regimented. The second time, you took it incredibly seriously. Where on that spectrum do these Olympics fall? Are you even more fastidious than 2012? I assume you aren't skipping as many workouts as you did at 19.
I skipped a lot of workouts at 19 but once I got to training camp before the Olympics – so in the lead up to Olympic trials – the entire team of us lived in these apartments and missing workouts wasn't an option. Even if I was there half-dazed, I had to be there. And I would be there. So there was no missing workouts. I got my training in against my will in a lot of ways and it worked. So, just to dispel that. It was a short period of time but it was all there in the lead-up to it.
But now, absolutely more fastidious, for sure. And it's a lot more control – self-imposed control on how I behave and what I'm going to do and it's very regimented, orderly. Which almost worries me in a way, because I know that stuff works, but we're talking about the water, you know? Water moves and you need to be able to be continually adaptive to it. That's a hard thing to actually train – the nuance of water. So that fastidiousness may actually work against me.
Which is interesting because, in the book, when you all the people who describe your stroke, the mention the artistry of it
It's like when anyone reads a book – they like it for their own reasons or they don't like it for their own reasons. But nobody actually understands it – not even me!
But when you talk about your stroke, there's this great section where you break it down into mathematics and how you apply your love of calculus to swimming. So there's this tension of artistry and mysticism with extreme precision.
I guess all of that stuff is the attempt to just not give up on figuring out what you're feeling and what you're doing. Just continually trying to bring thought – conscious thought – to the body and the movements you're making. The forces moving to and fro. I feel like even trying to use the words to describe it is kind of like dizzying.
And yet, within this sport and every other Olympic sport, there's a lot of time, money and resources poured into figuring those words out and then distilling it into a program for how to structure your training. You were some who struggled a bit with regimentation as far back as high school.
The frequent compulsion toward further freedom. And when you're younger, you're born into someone else's control. Only when you start growing up do you start to feel the semblance of freedom and so you start placing yourself in more control, to reach a grand peak in your mid- to late-twenties. At least for me, when I was unbound by anything and almost felt comfortable sleeping in gutters and on soaked couches on any given day. You never knew. It was awesome but not meant to last. But yeah, there is something to be said of this destructive component that you do to your body. What I do, I don't think it's healthy. When I'm operating at my best, when I really feel like I'm getting the work done and I'm getting myself better, I know I'm going to pay for it. We push ourselves beyond the human limits. That's kind of what we always aimed to believe is necessary to end up at the top of the podium.
As the times get lower and lower, you're pushing the throttle harder and harder.
Yeah, you're at the red line and you want to keep it there. But eventually, the engine's going to blow, if it was a car. I deal with that a lot. When I was younger and in 2012, it was just, like, injuries. Completely fry out my shoulder and I'd have to spend three or four days with a kickboard, just kicking. Ice and ibuprofen all the time. I haven't, but I've known plenty of people who have gotten surgery. Or getting cortisone shots, and it's like, you know these things are not good for you. Everybody knows they're not good for you but you tell yourself 'It's worth it. It's worth destroying myself to achieve this.'
Do you still feel that way?
Depends. Some things are worth dying for, right?
Well, is this? I mean, you're not going to die.
I'm not going to die (laughs). And that's the thing – you're not going to die but it's a term we throw around so casually. Like, you go for something and then you die. The water pushes as hard against you as much as you try to direct the force forward. And the water just starts swallowing you so you need to start sinking and it just gets harder and harder and harder. It feels like this death. You're not going to die. Parts of your body are going to aggressively age, let's say.
Is it worth it? I guess each individual person would have to answer it. But for me, was it worth it? If the goal was to go back to the Olympics, was it worth it to do all those things in my 20s? If that was the cost, if I knew going into it that it was going to be the cost and I was going to have to reach all these highs and lows and danger – I did almost die a couple of times, not related to the water. If I knew that was what it was going to take, would I do it? Definitely not! (laughs) Are you kidding me? I don't have very good vision, I don't see that far in front of me (still laughing).
In the cliché version of this interview, you'd say "Hell yeah!"
Well, that's the thing. Do I have any regrets? No, unless – but if I start regretting and we go all the way back to things way beyond my control, which is what we're thrown into, then you're not changing your own choices.
Michael Phelps, over the last several years, has been publicly scrutinized for some choices that basically amount to trying to break out of the regimented lifestyle of swimming. You, better than probably any other swimmer, have a window into being on the receiving end of that. How much could you empathize with him based on your own experience?
For one, he did buy into the regimentation for a long, long time to accomplish this Herculean goal. He thought maybe, just like I did, too, you're putting in the work so you can enjoy the freedom. I guess your real reward is this vast expanse of freedom. Like when you go hiking and you reach the summit of whatever little hill – perhaps you're a boss and it's Everest – and getting that view. You earned the freedom of seeing it all beneath you of what you've done. That's kind of what we do with our sport as well. And he did that. And it must have been a hard thing to grapple with when, 'I'm here, I want to have my freedom now' but you're still beholden to this public idea.
That wasn't supposed to be the deal.
That wasn't supposed to be the deal and you can never understand it until you're actually confronted by it, no matter how many people tell you about it. I mean, maybe you can, but not as completely. At least I found that it was an incredible cognitive dissonance between what I perceived as that public expectation and what was actually me, where I wanted to go with it. What I had to deal with wasn't even a candle of the expectations he has. Even in a place that's supposed to be sacrosanct like the Olympic Village, the guy was being harassed and hounded. And yet he chose to live there anyways. He could have pulled [a move like] The Dream Team or the Williams sisters, who they don't live in the Olympic Village. They'll make an appearance as celebrities and walk around and take pictures and shake hands, but not actually live there. But Michael chooses to live there. He would deal with it. Maybe that's his way of armoring up, toughening himself up against something like that, knowing that he is always going to be with the people and not completely outside of them.
Are you approaching this as your last Olympics or would you contemplate making another run at age 39?
Oh, man. I don't know. I wouldn't put it out of possibility. What if the seemingly impossible happens and I have an incredible Games? Why stop? If nothing else, why not at least consider that I can whip myself into shape at 39 and show up at trials and make the final? Not even worry about making the team, I just make the final – just chilling when I'm old as fuck (laughs). It would be awesome. So I wouldn't put it past me that I'll always be going back into the fight. Even when I can't make the Olympic trials any more, going to masters meets.
Do you love swimming?
As an activity? Being in the water? Yeah, man. There was a storm a couple of days ago, three days ago, just coming in heavy. I was supposed to be coaching and some of the swimmers were like 'Man, what a terrible day to swim.' What are you talking about? This is perfect. I couldn't take it, I changed and just jumped in. And was just, like, in the water. Even when I was on the surface, I could feel the water falling on me from the heavens. It was great. I have a love-hate relationship with racing and always trying to push myself beyond pushing myself to the uncomfortable place. Even though I know it's not true that the ends justify the means, the ends justify the means (laughs). And so I accept it because of that. But as far as swimming as an abstract, yeah, man, love it.