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Can Anthony Ervin Become the Oldest Swimmer to Win Individual Gold?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Much has been made of the presence of “Michael Phelps, old guy” at the Rio Games. But at 31, Phelps has yet to finish a final without earning a gold medal. The greatest Olympian of all time is, miraculously, just as dominant as ever. There’s another old swimmer in Rio, though, and he’s also accomplishing something miraculous, but for a very different reason: He was last dominant almost a generation ago.

For the oldest American swimmer in Rio, the Olympics aren’t a chance to ease into retirement, but an opportunity to reclaim a career gone awry. Friday night, 35-year-old Anthony Ervin can become the oldest swimmer from any nation to win an individual gold medal. After Thursday night’s 50-meter freestyle semifinal gave him a tie for the second-best final qualifying time, Ervin is a top contender in Friday’s final, which is scheduled for 9:44 p.m. ET. Ervin is four years older than Phelps, who himself just became the oldest swimmer to win individual Olympic gold, so even a podium finish would be a historic surprise. In anticipation of swimming’s premier sprint, let’s familiarize ourselves with Anthony Ervin, whose last individual medal came in Sydney.

How old is 35 in swimming?

Ancient. Ervin is the oldest American man to compete in an individual swimming event in more than 100 years. This is a sport where many excel in their teens and only a select few can seriously compete as they approach their 30s. Dara Torres made headlines when she competed in Beijing at age 41, winning two silver medals, one of which was individual. But Torres is an extreme outlier — the oldest swimmer to medal in Olympic history. Ervin’s presence alone is remarkable.

I haven’t heard his name before. Where was he during the past few Olympics?

In Sydney, when he was 19, Ervin tied with Gary Hall Jr. to win gold in the 50-meter freestyle and added a silver in the 4x100 freestyle relay. The footage of Ervin’s winning swim from 2000 looks like it’s from a lifetime ago:

Despite being the fastest man in water (or at least tied for that title) in Sydney, Ervin retired just three years later, at an age when most swimmers are entering their primes. As the Athens and Beijing games came and went, Ervin struggled with depression, alcohol, and drug addiction. At one point, Ervin attempted suicide by overdosing on his Tourette’s syndrome medication. But, in 2007, after hitting rock bottom, Ervin reenrolled in UC Berkeley, where he had dropped out in 2002, and in 2010, started training for a comeback. At 31, noticeably old for any swimmer not named Phelps, Ervin qualified for the 50 free in London, where he finished fifth.

What is Ervin’s program in Rio?

He’s swimming in only one individual race, but Ervin has already won a gold medal as part of the 4x100 freestyle relay. Ervin wasn’t selected to swim in the final, but was still awarded a medal because he competed in the heats for the event, where he swam the fastest split of the four Americans involved. That gold medal made for a nice piece of swimming trivia: Ervin’s 16-year wait between them ties the longest such gap for any Olympic swimmer ever. The last time an athlete accomplished the feat was in 1924.

Does he still have his medals from Sydney?

Funny that you asked! Ervin sold his gold medal on eBay for more than $17,000 and then donated the money to relief efforts for the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. “Even with all my vaunted talent, facing that wall of water, I would have died, as well,” Ervin told the Star Tribune in 2012. “In order to kind of cleanse myself, I wanted to do something I thought would help, to kind of give myself away.’’ Ervin somehow lost his silver medal during his retirement. Luckily for him, he won’t have an empty trophy case after these games.

What are his chances of winning the 50 free?

It’s hard to tell. The event is the shortest in swimming, so while qualifying can indicate who may medal, the finishing order is often a toss-up. At the U.S. trials, Ervin finished just .01 seconds behind star sprinter Nathan Adrian. Ervin and Adrian’s semifinal times in Rio were second and fourth best in the field, respectively, but defending gold medalist Florent Manaudou of France leads a strong field of competitors into the final. History may be against Ervin, but if you keep an eye on Lane 3, you might just see one more great race from the man who has never followed convention.