Charlotte’s Anthony Ervin, 35, wins gold, redemption in swimming’s fastest race

Anthony Ervin of SwimMAC Carolina won swimming’s fastest race Friday night at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, blasting to a time of 21.40 seconds for a stunning gold medal that he won by a fingertip.

Ervin, 35, was the oldest swimmer in the 50-meter freestyle final and also the oldest on the U.S. swimming team. His nickname on the American team is Gramps. He became the oldest Olympic swimmer to ever win an individual event with the victory.

When Ervin out of the water after the race and saw the “1” next to his name, what was he feeling?

“The absurdity, the surrealness of it all,” he said. “I smiled and laughed, because it seemed so unlikely.”

Ervin’s victory Friday came by 1/100th of a second against defending 2012 Olympic champion Florent Manaudou of France (21.41). American Nathan Adrian took third in 21.49.

Ervin has had quite a memorable last few months. He revealed after his victory that he had also had become a father during a whirlwind time that also included his move to the Charlotte area to train and his Olympic gold medal. His baby girl is six weeks old and was born while Ervin was competing in the Olympic Trials.

“I haven’t had the chance to meet her yet,” Ervin said.

But the swimmer said after his race that he had a message for his daughter Friday night that he would keep on repeating as she grew up.

“I wanted to tell her that the American dream is for anybody without exception,” Ervin said, “whether you’re a boy or a girl, the shade of your skin or the shape of your eyes, with no regard to who you love or the beliefs that give you peace.”

When asked if he was still in a relationship with his daughter’s mother, Ervin said: “She’s a lovely, lovely woman. That’s all I’m going to say.”

The move to Charlotte

It was the third time in his career that Ervin had swum in the 50 free final at the Olympics. In 2000, as a 19-year-old, he tied for the gold medal with Gary Hall Jr. That gold medal brought Ervin more pain than pleasure, and he ended up auctioning it off and giving the proceeds to charity. Then he retired at 22.

After coming back into the sport following almost a decade away from it, Ervin made the U.S. Olympic team for a second time in 2012. But then he got off to a bad start in the same race and finished fifth. Manaudou won and SwimMAC’s Cullen Jones finished second.

Ervin moved to Charlotte four months ago in a last-minute training switch, in part to work on those troublesome starts with SwimMAC Carolina Team Elite head coach David Marsh. Marsh first checked with his other swimmers about whether it would be OK for Ervin to come.

Recalled Marsh of the swimmers’ reaction: “Literally, every one of them said, ‘Oh, Tony?! He’s amazing! Absolutely!”

So Ervin came to Charlotte, lived with his parents at their home in Fort Mill – they had retired there a dozen years ago. Then Ervin had a good beginning when it mattered Friday night and arrowed through the water to end up winning two gold medals in the same event – 16 years apart.

Ervin said he would always consider Charlotte one of his homes but that he didn’t necessarily see himself living in Charlotte – or anywhere else – on a long-term basis right now.

“For the last 10-12 years, I’ve been transient,” Ervin said. “I’m like a sailor. I go from port to port and where I rest my head is home. But Charlotte will always be a nexus for which I return to time and time again.”

The lost decade

That lost decade of Ervin’s – he didn’t make a single Olympic team in his 20s – is the subject of a large chunk of his recent autobiography “Chasing Water.” Once Ervin retired at age 22, he experimented with all kinds of drugs. He tried to become a rock guitarist. He once attempted suicide by taking an overdose of the medicine he uses to control his Tourette’s Syndrome. He drove a motorcycle at 177 mph. He was basically homeless and hopped from one friend’s couch to another.

“I think maybe you can say he’s lucky to be alive,” Marsh said before Friday’s race. “And he’s making the best of that. He’s now in this window of time where he’s just in his best place.”

Lithuania’s Simonas Bilis, who just finished a standout career at N.C. State, finished eighth in the race. Said Bilis of Ervin: “At that age, getting a gold, it shows all of us young swimmers we’re not done yet. We can keep it going.”

Bilis was less than a second behind Ervin in the splash-and-dash race that routinely produces a near-photo finish. Ervin’s reaction time off the blocks still wasn’t as fast as Manaudou’s (0.69 for Ervin, 0.63 for Manaudou) but it was close enough for Ervin to run the Frenchman down.

“He can outswim everybody,” Marsh had said earlier in the week in Rio of Ervin. “But he’s got to get in the game with them first.”

On Friday night, Ervin got in the game all right.

And – to the surprise of most everyone but himself and some of the people in Charlotte who knew how fast he’s been going these past few months – he actually won.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler