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A gold at age 39? Don’t count Anthony Ervin out

U.S. swimmer Anthony Ervin: No plans to retire

At age 35, 2-time Olympic gold medalist in Rio says he's going to keep going in swimming "until I'm not wanted anymore."
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At age 35, 2-time Olympic gold medalist in Rio says he's going to keep going in swimming "until I'm not wanted anymore."

Anthony Ervin’s surprising gold medal in the 50 freestyle Olympic final Friday night would have been a fitting swan song – except that Ervin has no intention of quitting.

Ervin is 35, and he’d like to swim again at age 39 at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Said Ervin at a news conference in Rio Saturday: “ I’m not talking about retirement. I don’t want to go back to that place... That can be a dark, lonely place if you get stuck there.”

Ervin got stuck there the first time around, when he retired at age 22. He spent an aimless, hedonistic decade experimenting with drugs, alcohol and rock and roll. He got so depressed he tried to commit suicide. He didn’t have much of a plan for his life, and it showed.

But Ervin rediscovered joy in swimming, and several months ago he moved to the Charlotte area to join SwimMAC Carolina just before the 2016 Olympic Trials. He lived with his parents, who retired a dozen years ago to Fort Mill, and he trained under head coach David Marsh.

“He told me my confidence was lacking,” Ervin said. “And he found a way to nurture that.... When I started feeling like myself technically in the water, then my confidence went up.”

Marsh knew Ervin had to work on his start in the 50, where he invariably fell behind at the beginning of the race. He got so frustrated with Ervin at one practice that he told him: “I’m going to teach you how to dive, all over again, just like you would teach a child.”

They started with Ervin diving off his knees, then off the side of the pool and finally off the blocks. Ervin finally did it the way Marsh wanted – and then Ervin did a lot more than that on Friday night.

Ervin is friends with French freestyle champion Florent Manaudou, who had won the 50 free in 2012 and won the event just about every time he competed in it after that, too. “I’ve raced Flo for the past four years and he’s gotten me every time,” Ervin said.

Not this time. Ervin out-touched Manaudou with a time of 21.40 seconds, a fingernail in front of Manaudou’s 21.41. That gave Ervin two gold medals for the meet – he had already won one in the 4x200 freestyle relay.

Ervin revealed after the race that he was the father of a daughter who had been born six weeks ago but whom he has yet to meet. He sent her a message via reporters and NBC after the race, though, saying he hoped she understood that the American dream was real and achievable.

As for retirement, Ervin said he was nowhere close. “I love swimming,” Ervin said. “Being in the water is a sanctuary. I’m not going to give that up, whether I’m the best in the world or competitively irrelevant.”

Ervin said he wasn’t sure whether he would keep training in Charlotte or move elsewhere, but said because of his parents being nearby that the Charlotte area was always going to be part of his life. He said he was going to be much better equipped to handle his gold medal this time around – compared to the first one he won in the same event when he was 19.

“The weight of this gold feels much lighter,” Ervin said, “knowing that it’s being carried by my people.”

ABBY ADVANCES: Abby Johnston keeps extending her soon-to-be-concluded diving career. She advanced from the semifinals to the finals of the 3-meter springboard Saturday.

Johnston, who is retiring from diving and starting her third year at Duke’s medical school as soon as she gets home, finished in a tie for fifth place in the semifinals to advance. The finals start at 3 p.m. Sunday.

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