Anthony Ervin

Anthony Ervin

His arms are covered in colorful tattoos. He’s been on three Olympic teams, albeit twelve years removed from the first to second. And he’s got his own line of rock-and-roll t-shirts. He’s Anthony Ervin, America’s guitar-playing and staunchly individualistic pure-sprint freestyler.

Ervin was born on May 26, 1981 in Valencia, Calif. His background represents the diversity of the United States, as he is of European Jewish descent on his mother’s side and African American and Native American descent on his father’s side. Growing up he was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, but that hasn’t stopped him from swimming fast. His book, Chasing the Water, hit store shelves in 2016.

College swimming

Anthony Ervin, sprint free, Cal Bears, 2004 and 2012 Olympian, Olympic Gold Medalist, Swim Tattoos, Olympic Tattoos (Photo Credit: Tim Binning, theswimpictures)

Anthony Ervin (Photo Credit: Tim Binning, theswimpictures)

Growing up, Ervin swam for the Canyons Aquatic Club in Santa Clarita before choosing to attend the University of California – Berkeley in 1999. As a Cal Bear Ervin dominated the NCAA Division I National Championships. During his tenure he was a three-time National Champion in the 100 free and 400 free relays, as well as a one-time National Champion in the 50 free. His achievements at Cal made him a 27-time NCAA All American. The FINIS athlete was named as an inductee to the California Berkeley Hall of Fame in 2015.

2000 Olympics

In 2000, Ervin qualified for his first Olympic Team after finishing fifth in the 100m freestyle and second in the 50m freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Trials. At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Ervin tied with Gary Hall Jr. for gold in the 50 free, sharing a blisteringly fast time of 21.98. Ervin and Hall, along with Neil Walker and Jason Lezak, also teamed up on the 400m freestyle relay, earning a silver medal and sharing a spot on the medal stand again.

2001 World Championships

Ervin rode this wave of success to the 2001 World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan where he won the 50 free and the 100 free. At the 2002 Pan Pacs in Yokohama, Japan, he took silver in the 50 free and as part of the 400 free relay.

Early retirement

Just chilling. Photo: Anne Lepesant

After the 2002 Pan Pacs Ervin decided to retire from the sport at the young age of 22. During his retirement, Ervin eschewed the spotlight that his international achievements had garnered — during the 2000 Olympic Games the media focused heavily on the fact that he was the first U.S. Olympic swimmer of African-American heritage. He explored the non-swimming side of his life, filling his arms with tattoos, playing in different rock bands, pursuing his education, but he eventually returned to the pool deck as an instructor and as a coach. He even sold his gold medal on eBay for $17,101 to help the relief efforts after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

In 2006 Ervin moved to New York City where he worked as a swimming instructor at Imagine Swimming, a swim school that was founded by his former Cal teammate, Lars Merseburg. After a few years, he decided to split his time between Berkeley and New York City, finishing his Bachelor’s degree in English in 2010. Eventually, Ervin moved back to Berkeley full-time to pursue a master’s degree in Culture of Sport in Education. During that time he became an instructor and coach for the Oakland Undercurrent swim team in Oakland, Calif. Ervin gained a different perspective on swimming through these years, enjoying his role as an instructor and watching kids develop a love for the sport.

Return to swimming

Perhaps it was a combination of seeing the sport in a fresh way and taking some much needed time away from the pool that drove Ervin to start training again with the Cal women’s team in 2011. His speed quickly returned; at the Austin Grand Prix in January 2012 he recorded a 22.27 in the 50 free. More Grand Prix meets followed in 2012 and as that year’s U.S. Olympic Trials neared, Ervin was a favorite to make the Olympic team in the 50 free.

2012 U.S. Olympic Trials / 2012 Olympic Games

Twelve years after making his first Olympic Team, Ervin punched his ticket to the 2012 London Olympics with a personal best of 21.60 in the 50 free. He finished an incredibly close second to Cullen Jones (21.59). In London, Ervin came in 5th in the 50 free.

2013 FINA World Championships

At the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona, Ervin won a silver medal as part of the 400m free relay. His split of 47.44 was faster than those of his three other teammates: Ryan Lochte, Nathan Adrian, and Jimmy Feigen. Although Ervin finished 6th in the 50 free, his semifinal time of 21.42 was another personal best and the fastest non-tech suit time in American history.

2014 U.S. National Championships / Pan Pacific Championships

A year later at the U.S. National Championships he won the 50m free, and picked up a fifth-place finish in the 100 free. His win earned him the last spot on the Pan Pacs roster, where he went to compete in Gold Coast, Australia. He competed in the top final of the 50 free, and snuck into the preliminary final of the 100 free after Ryan Lochte scratched the event.

2015 FINA World Championships

In Oct. 2014 Ervin was named to the 2015 World Championship roster, which was held in Kazan. In Kazan, Russia Ervin made it to the semi finals in the 50 meter freestyle. He tied for 8th place but failed to qualify for the final in the swim off. In the 400 meter freestyle relay, Ervin was part of the USA team that finished 11th in the prelims and missed out on a finals swim.

2016 U.S Olympic Trials

Anthony Ervin takes the bow in Omaha at the Olympic trials (photo: Mike Lewis)

At 35 years old, Ervin became the oldest male U.S individual Olympic swimmer in over a decade. In 1904 36 year old Edgar Adams won silver in the mens plunge for distance event. Ervin will compete in the 50 meter freestyle after touching 2nd, just one hundredth behind Nathan Adrian. The same margin he was out touched by at the 2012 Trials.

Earlier in the week he sealed his spot on the plane to Rio with a 4th place finish in the 100 meter freestyle, earning him a place on the 400 meter freestyle relay. The Games will be his 3rd, 16 years after making his debut in 2000.

2016 Rio Olympics

At 35 years old, Ervin became the oldest ever Olympic champion in the pool when he took the gold in 50 meter freestyle, 16 years after his first title in 2000. At the touch, Ervin beat out the defending 50 meter Olympic Champion by one hundredth of a second in 21.40. His compatriot, Nathan Adrian rounded out the medals, finishing in 3rd.

Earlier in the week, he won gold for his heat swim in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay. He had the fastest split on the USA team to bring them home and qualify first for the final. Caeleb Dressel, Ryan Held, Michael Phelps and Nathan Adrian went on to take gold in the final in 3:09.92.

2017 SwimSwam Cover 

Shortly after the Olympic Games, Anthony got a sprawling portrait tattooed on his back, reaching from the top of his shoulders down to his knees. This, along with his existing ink, was the cover feature for the 2017 SwimSwam Magazine Ink issue. In the feature, penned by Kip Fulbeck, he discussed the story behind his extensive body art.


Originally developed by Christina Wright.

International Medals

Place Event Year Meet
Gold 50 Free 2016 Olympic Games
Gold 400 Freestyle Relay 2016 Olympic Games
Gold 50 Free 2000 Olympic Games
Silver 400 Freestyle Relay 2000 Olympic Games
Gold 50 Free 2001 World Championships
Gold 100 Free 2001 World Championships
Silver 400 Freestyle Relay 2013 World Championships
Gold 400 Freestyle Relay 2012 Short Course World Championships
Gold 400 Medley Relay 2012 Short Course World Championships
Bronze 50 Free 2012 Short Course World Championships
Silver 50 Free 2014 Pan Pacific Championships
Silver 400 Freestyle Relay 2014 Pan Pacific Championships
Silver 50 Free 2002 Pan Pacific Championships
Silver 400 Freestyle Relay 2002 Pan Pacific Championships

Best Times

Course Event Time Date Meet
lcm 50 Free 21.40 08/12/16 2016 Olympic Games
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
lcm 100 Free 48.33 07/22/01 2001 FINA World Championships
Fukuoka, Japan
Anthony Ervin (photo: Mike Lewis) Anthony Ervin (courtesy of Melissa Lundie, Anthony Ervin, sprint free, 2004 and 2012 Olympian, Olympic Gold Medalist, Swim Tattoos, Olympic Tattoos (Photo Credit: Tim Binning, theswimpictures) Nathan Adrian, Anthony Ervin, 50 free, 2012 US Olympic Trials (Photo Credit: Tim Binning)