Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin discusses success, personal struggles at KSU Stark

U.S Olympic medalist Anthony Ervin smiles while talking to members of the press and local high schools.

Brynn Pennell

Four-time Olympic swimming medalist Anthony Ervin told a large crowd of students, staff and community members Tuesday night at Kent State Stark about not just his challenges as an athlete, but his challenge to find personal happiness.

Ervin claimed the title of the fastest person on the planet in 2000 and 2016 in the 50 meter freestyle in Sydney and Rio. After winning three Olympic golds, one silver, two World Championships and seven NCAA titles, Ervin retired in 2003 at age 22.

”It was a very painful realization to figure out I was only doing something for other people,” Ervin said. “I no longer had ownership of what I was doing for myself. So in order to get that back, I went on this journey.”

During his journey, Ervin spent several years traveling the world and exploring other interests such as receiving a college degree in English literature at Berkeley, discovering new music, getting new tattoos and teaching people around the world about swimming.

“I just went to go live my own life on my own time,” Ervin said. “It was a time where I could really try to form my own identity since I kind of lived out the one that had been procured for me as a minor.”

In 2012, after nine years of being in retirement, Ervin finally stepped back into a pool, all because of an autobiography assignment for his master’s degree. The paper was based on the ups and downs of his life, and the things he had to do to overcome obstacles he faced. Dozens of smoked cigarettes and fifty pages later, Ervin finally had the motivation to swim again.

Ervin made his second Olympic debut in the 2012 London Olympics, but fell short of a medal as he took fifth place in the 50 meter freestyle. 

After a tough defeat in London, Ervin wasn’t ready to give up quite yet. Ervin made his third and most recent debut in the 2016 Rio Olympics, as he became the oldest swimmer to take home the gold.

After the Rio Olympics came to a close, Ervin published his memoir, “Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian,” co-authored by a swim trainer and colleague Constantine Markides.

The memoir explains his life after the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics which involved sex, drugs, dangerous motorcycle riding and a suicide attempt that involved consuming a bottle of prescription medicine to help moderate his Tourette’s syndrome.

“It was really alienating to be stared at when people see you twitching and spazzing out in front of them,” Ervin said. “Standing behind a starting block in an Olympic pool knowing there are thousands in the crowd and millions watching, I am not supposed to worry about the syndrome. To be able to shuck that pressure and stay focused on the task in front of you, that was a gift the struggle with tourettes gave me.”

Prior to the speech Tuesday, Ervin spoke to local high school and middle school students via Google Hangouts. A major topic discussed was the suicide epidemic occurring in local high schools, an issue that personally hits home to Ervin.

“I have reached that ultimate low,” Ervin told the students. “I have tried and failed to end my life. If something is going to keep happening no matter what, find the way to keep going that is best for you. That is a search and stopping is not possible. You can pause for a time, you can wait and think about it for awhile and you can lay down and mope about it. Eventually something is going to come that will push you or you will get yourself up and get yourself forward.”

As the 2020 Summer Olympics are slowly approaching, Ervin hopes to represent Team USA in Tokyo at the age of 39.

“I am going to keep swimming,” Ervin said. “Even though I will be ancient by the time the Tokyo Olympics comes around, I am going to do my best. I haven’t tapped out on my potential, there is more there. I can still be better, I plan on being better.”

Ervin was selected to take part in Kent Stark’s Featured Speaker Series, a university event hosting national and international experts in civil rights, politics, education, environmental activism, literature and arts to campus. A list of previous and future speakers can be found on Kent State Stark’s website.

Brynn Pennell is the regional campuses reporter. Contact him at [email protected]