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Sports

Taking the Olympic plunge - again - 12 years later

Swimming enigma Anthony Ervin threw in the towel nearly a decade ago, quitting the sport and school. Twelve years after winning gold in Sydney, the American is back at the Olympics.

Anthony Ervin was riding high in 2000 after winning a gold medal in the Sydney Olympics. Three years later, the American swimmer gave up the sport entirely and dropped out of school.

He returned to the sport in 2011, and twelve years after his success in Australia, the 31-year-old is back at his second Olympics.

Successful beginnings

Ervin, of African-American, Native American, and Jewish heritage, grew up in California. The talented 19-year-old secured a spot on the US Swim team in 2000, the first of African-American ancestry to do so. He surprised many with a gold medal win in the 50-meter freestyle and added a second medal when he won silver in the 4x100 freestyle relay.

American swimmers Anthony Ervin and Gerry Hall hold up their gold medals at the Aquatic Centre in Sydney in 2000.

Ervin (L) tied American teammate Gerry Hall for gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000

He continued his success with gold medal wins in both the 50 and 100 freestyle at the 2001 World Aquatics Championship in Japan. While a member of the swim team at the University of California Berkley he also won seven National Collegiate Athletic Association titles .

Giving it up

Things changed for Ervin in 2003. When his NCAA eligibility expired he left college without a degree and walked away from the sport of swimming entirely.

"A lot of people can't fathom why I don't [swim anymore]," he told his university newspaper The Daily Californian in 2004. "It's no walk in the park."

During his time at Berkley, Ervin repeatedly passed up lucrative sponsorship deals in order to maintain his amateur status. He gave up sponsorship possibilities completely when he retired from the sport.

He auctioned off his Olympic gold medal on eBay for around $17,000 to benefit the survivors of the Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in December of 2004. He lost his silver medal, he says, during his travels.

After leaving swimming, Ervin moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he played guitar in various bands and picked up smoking. He made money teaching swim lessons to children in Manhattan at Imagine Swimming, a school founded by former college teammate Lars Merseburg.

Working with children, both in New York and in Oakland, California, where he has returned for graduate school, inspired Ervin to compete again.

Out of retirement

A lot is different about Ervin since he last swam competitively. He has two full-length sleeve tattoos on each arm, he earned his degree in English from Berkley in 2010, and he is currently pursuing a master's degree in sport, culture, and education.

Ervin does not like to call his return to the sport a comeback. "I felt compelled to make a return to the water," he told San Francisco Chronicle newspaper in June. "I wasn't even thinking of competition."

He entered the pool again in late 2011, training with the Cal women's team. By the new year, he was swimming competitively again. He finished third in the 50 meter freestyle at the Austin Grand Prix in January with a time of 22.27 seconds, almost a half second slower than his 2000 Olympic qualifying time of 21.80 seconds.

Going to London

Ervin continued to improve, and his success in national meets took him to the Olympic Trials in Nebraska earlier this summer. He came in second in the 50 meter freestyle, earning him a spot on Team USA.

Competition will be thick at the games in London. Current gold medal and world-record-holder Cesar Cielo of Brazil is the favorite to repeat. He won gold at the 2011 World Aquatics Championship in China with a time of 21.58 seconds.

But Ervin is not far off. He has improved dramatically since coming out of retirement, and his impressive showing of 21.6 seconds at the US Olympic trials puts him in the medal contention.

Author: David Raish
Editor: Matt Zuvela