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."
In 1983, a two-year-old Anthony Ervin crawled out from his sleeping mother's arms, slid open the glass patio door of his suburban L.A. home and toddled to the edge of the backyard pool. His mother, waking from her doze, rushed out to find him sitting on the pool edge, splashing his feet in the water. Within a week, contractors begin erecting a wrought-iron fence around the pool. To Ervin, the imposing barrier transformed the pool into an object of fascination and fear. "The pool came to represent freedom," he says. "A freedom that could potentially lead to annihilation."
By kindergarten, Ervin was displaying the behavior problems that plagued his childhood. "I was a little shit," he recalls. "A troublemaker, disobedient, no discipline." His parents enrolled him in a swim team, hoping he'd channel his aggression in the water. At seven he won his first competition, and soon he began breaking California records. As much as he reveled in the flush of victory, he began resenting the demands of the sport, which didn't allow him a normal social life. At nine he started running away from home, leading to serious conflicts with his parents. Life at home was tense. Ervin begged to quit swimming, but to no avail.
The spring before high school, Ervin developed a tic and would go into fits of rapid blinking. During emotional moments, he would start swearing excessively. A neurologist diagnosed him with Tourette's syndrome and prescribed tranquilizers. He became withdrawn, coming to view himself as "brain-damaged," he says. The feeling has stayed with him. "I've always felt the story of my life has been about being normal but on the fringes of abnormality."
He started acting out while on the road and was sent home from the regional championships because he was caught playing with fire in his hotel room, torching his bedsheets. He was barred from the championships for a year.
By senior year, though, he was one of the top two swimmers in the country and won a full scholarship to UC Berkeley. The freedom of being away from home overwhelmed him. In his first week there, he got drunk daily, smoked marijuana for the first time and lost his virginity. He quickly developed an interest in mind-altering drugs, experimenting with the gamut of psychedelics. As the 2000 U.S. Olympic trials neared, he began experimenting with lowering his dosage of tranquilizers for his Tourette's. The gamble paid off, and he made the Olympic team, setting up his run for the gold at Sydney.
Less than a year after his Olympic victory, Ervin's life effectively fell apart. He was drinking heavily and doing drugs. One morning he woke up in jail, with no memory of the previous night. Drinking soon took precedence over his classes and workouts and led to rampant womanizing. Women became, in his words, "objects to destroy at will," something that brought him shame even though "many were willing accomplices. There were so many phases of casual sex, which now seems repugnant. Not that I don't believe it's a livable lifestyle. I just don't think it's for me. I can't handle it."
As his personal life continued to bottom out, he sank into a depression. "Everyone pushed me to keep swimming, stay in school, blah blah, and nobody understood I was struggling. I just wanted it to be fucking over." One evening he downed all his tranquilizers and lost consciousness. "I woke up the next morning only to find I had failed to even kill myself," he says. "At that point, I had a moment-with-God-type thing. I was reborn, in a way."
After his near-death experience, he developed a sense of invincibility: "If I can't destroy myself," Ervin recalls thinking, "maybe I can't be destroyed." He purchased a sport motorcycle. One afternoon, while riding out of the hills of Berkeley, he got into a high-speed chase with the cops and hit a red Mustang, dislocating his shoulder. "I should have died," he says.
In January 2004, at the age of 22, he quit swimming and college. He grew dreadlocks and cycled through a string of jobs in music stores and tattoo parlors in the Bay Area. He began seeking out knowledge and experiences far removed from the pool. He went to church, meditated at a Buddhist temple. He studied philosophy with a Sufi mystic and fasted for Ramadan. He also began a fitness regimen more suited for a debauched rock star. "Years of neglect and poisoning followed," he says. "After being forced to constantly abuse my body with labor, I wasn't going to do anything. But I was also reclaiming my body with the tattoos. I was giving myself a new skin. I wanted to re-create myself."
Music gave him a freedom that athletics had not. "A lot of the macho stuff got turned on its head," he says. "I started moving away from things that were classically masculine. I stopped listening to the misogynist hip-hop that I listened to as an athlete and instead became all about educating myself about rock & roll, whether it was angst-ridden punk or country blues or romance-and-ballads-type stuff." His role models were often androgynous innovators like David Bowie and Prince who were constantly pushing boundaries and reinventing themselves.
But life on the margins soon left Ervin broke. Then a former Cal teammate offered him a position teaching at a New York swim school he'd co-founded. At that point, Ervin wasn't even thinking about returning to racing; he just needed a paycheck. In the company of kids who were even wackier than he was, he was able to enjoy the water without the stress of competition. "Coaching kids kept me grounded," Ervin says, "and didn't get me lost in vapidly obsessing over my body and performance."
Getting back in the pool also helped him quit all the bad habits he'd picked up. "My real bane was smoking pot and cigarettes," he says. "It's really been my Kryptonite. Once I got away from it, my body just resurged and kind of flourished."
In 2007, Ervin re-enrolled at Berkeley, though he'd return to New York in the summers to teach swimming. After graduating, he started a master's program at Cal in education. Following a battle with depression in 2010, he began swimming for emotional and physical rehab. "I just felt good, so I kept training," Ervin says. "That's all it was." The training organically led to some competitions, and at each meet his times steadily dropped until, one day, he found himself, once again, among the world's fastest. With the success and attention came a newfound competitive zeal, although he is wary of it. "As much as I hate to admit it, I now want to win," he says. "It's like a dangling carrot, and it changes my perception. That's why it's important for me to keep my objective eye sharp."
Ervin's event, the 50-meter freestyle sprint – one length down an Olympic-size pool – is swimming's glory event, the aquatic equivalent of the 100-meter dash. When he describes the sensation of cutting through the water, Ervin speaks of a "desperate search for a feeling of going faster, almost like chasing the dragon," he says. "My only technique is 'fast.' That's all I've got. It's abstract. Water is dissociative for me. It pulls me out of the realities of my life. A sanctuary. But, man, it wasn't a sanctuary for most of my youth. It was a prison."
Though a fierce competitor, Ervin remains ambivalent about the attention. "I'm not saving a life or detonating the sun," he says. "I'm just swimming one lap. It's a stunt, a well-performed acrobatic. And yet a lot of value is imposed on that. I believe that all things are done through the will of the gods. I don't believe I'm in charge of my destiny; forces are acting through me."
Today, Ervin trains with a razor focus. "Whereas my twenties were about experiencing and letting the cup overflow in a sensual sense – the sex, the drugs, the rock & roll – I feel I've been saturated with that. Now I'm trying to build and create."
Although still an outsider, he's come to embrace that status. "I don't feel alienated," Ervin says. "I just feel identity. Swimming now is me trying to reclaim what I didn't have when I was younger, the ethic and the love for it."
This story is from the August 2, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.