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Ervin’s Tattoos tell story of his winding journey

March 14, 2013
LEEDS, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Anthony Ervin of USA prepares to compete in the Men's 50m Freestyle heats on day two of the 2013 British Gas International meeting at John Charles Centre for Sport on March 8, 2013 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Anthony Ervin of USA  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Look at Anthony Ervin, and the first thing you see isn’t his Olympic gold medal. That’s because he doesn’t have it anymore. He auctioned it to raise funds for survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

And it’s not immediately clear that Ervin was the first swimmer of African-American descent to win that gold medal, either.

Instead, the first thing you are likely to notice about Ervin is his unique look — his funky glasses, curly hair and tattooed arms.

In some ways, Ervin’s swimming persona and his tattoos go hand-in-hand. During a recent interview with, Ervin said his first tattoo — of the Olympic rings — came after the 2000 Olympic Games.

“It’s kind of faded,” Ervin said of the tattoo. “I might need to touch it up.”

Since that first tattoo, Ervin has gotten countless others — so many, in fact, that both of his arms are covered.

He calls the ink a memoir and a symbol of his ever-changing life.

“In a lot of ways, it’s a memoir. It’s a living memoir,” Ervin said during the interview with “I look back on each tattoo or when I started each tattoo, and that puts me back to that point in my life, and while I may have understood myself as one thing back then, that understanding continues to evolve and grow as I am, and the same thing with the tattoos.”

He added: “For the most part, my tattoos are unfinished. And so that is a sign to me that I am unfinished and that I continue to grow and develop as well.”

Ervin’s swimming career has followed a unique and winding journey since his first Olympic Games in 2000. Then 19, Ervin tied for first place with fellow American Gary Hall Jr. in the 50 freestyle. He also won a silver medal as a member of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay.

The next year, Ervin won world titles in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles in between training for his University of California-Berkeley swim team.

Then, at 22, Ervin retired from the sport — “forever,” he said.

He fell into lifestyle that involved drugs, rock and roll, dreadlocks, record shops and tattoo parlors. He was involved in a high-speed chase with police which ended when he crashed his motorcycle into a car and separated his shoulder.

Then came the suicide attempt, during which Ervin consumed a bottle of tranquilizers. That was when Ervin realized he needed to turn his life around, he said.

“I woke up the next morning only to find I had failed to even kill myself,” Ervin told the San Francisco Chronicle. “At that point, I had a moment-with-God-type thing. I was reborn, in a way.”

In 2007, Ervin got sober and re-enrolled at Cal. Eventually, he found his way back to the pool with Cal coaches Dave Durden and Teri McKeever.

In the pool, Ervin discovered something he wasn’t quite prepared for — he still had speed, and he still had the desire to race. In 2011, he got serious about his training, and in 2012, he qualified for his second Olympic team at the age of 31.

Despite his advancing age, Ervin doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon. He doesn’t feel the pressure to perform that he once did, he said, and he’s simply enjoying his time on the national team.

“Certainly the plan is, if the stars align and allow it, (to) swim for the next four years and go to the (2016) trials, but (I have) no expectations whatsoever. The expectations will be kind of a year-by-year thing and … to kind of ride out the rest of my competitive career with gracing dignity until I am no longer of value to the USA national team,” Ervin said in the interview.



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