Olympics 2012: Team USA's Athletes Gunning for London Gold

The Rebel Olympian: Swimmer Anthony Ervin

Anthony Ervin
Photography by Art Streiber

The fastest swimmer in America right now may not be Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte but a tattooed, half-black, half-Jewish grad student with Tourette's syndrome who has a history with hallucinogens, tobacco, fast motorcycles and rock & roll, and has more in common with Kurt Cobain than with anyone pictured on a Wheaties box. A more conventional athlete than the 31-year-old Anthony Ervin, who won a gold medal at the Sydney Games in 2000 and then walked away from the sport, would probably be looking at the London Olympics as the final act in a historic career. For Ervin, it's just another step in a puzzling and at times deeply troubled journey. "It's like déjà vu," Ervin says of qualifying for Team USA in the 50-meter freestyle event. "Except where once I was green, vain and ambitious, now I'm just grateful to be alive and bring joy to those I care about."

When he was 19 and stepped up to the blocks in Sydney, Ervin had already set a world record. But the buzz wasn't about his speed, it was about his race. Ervin's mother is Jewish and his father is black, and he found himself defined as the "first African-American swimmer to make the Olympic team." After he climbed out of the pool in Sydney, beaming from his gold-medal victory, the sportscaster Jim Gray approached Ervin and asked what it felt like to be the first swimmer of African-American descent to win gold. Ervin gave a stock answer and walked away. "I didn't know a thing about what it was like to be part of the black experience," Ervin says today. "But now I do. It's like winning gold and having a bunch of old white people ask you what it's like to be black. That is my black experience."

The following year, Ervin won both the 50m and 100m freestyle at the World Championships in Japan, proving he was still the fastest swimmer on earth. But he may also have been the laziest. "I had a reputation for extraordinary talent matched only by extraordinary sloth," he says.

Burnt out and disillusioned by the age of 22, Ervin quit. He auctioned off his Olympic gold, gave the proceeds to the UNICEF tsunami relief fund and moved to New York to join a rock band, spending the next few years on what was equal parts spiritual quest and bender. "When I gave it all up, I went into my chrysalis and did all my partying and self-actualizing in New York. I'd like to think that I'm emerging now as my moth. And I'm going to fly into the flames."

Read the full story: Gold Medal Swimmer Anthony Ervin Is Out to Reclaim His Title

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