From USASwimming.org, By Mike Gustafson:
WILL: “I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn't paint you a picture, I probably can't hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can't play the piano.”
SKYLAR: “But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.”
WILL: “Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that... I could always just play.”
-Good Will Hunting
When any of the Top 20 participants in an event could potentially make the Olympics, you know it’ll be a goodrace. That’s the scenario in the men’s 100m freestyle, tomorrow, at 6:30pm EST, when the nation’s best men’s sprint freestylers will square off at the Austin Grand Prix. And while most eyes will focus at the center of the pool (Phelps vs. Adrian, presumably) there’s one slot I’m particularly interested in…
All the way down at seed #97…
Almost twelve years ago, Anthony Ervin tied his teammate Gary Hall Jr. in the 50m freestyle for Olympic gold. For fans who followed both careers, the performance was a validation that two of the most talented swimmers of all-time to ever wear a Team USA swim cap had finally reached their maximum potential. Before the race, you almost couldn’t imagine one of them losing, since they were both such supremely gifted athletes. Fortunately for the United States, neither of them did.
Since then, Gary Hall Jr. has retired (comeback, Gary?) and his former teammate, Anthony Ervin, has been relatively quiet, except for a pair of world championship gold medals in 2001 and some NCAA Championships for Cal-Berkeley. Then he retired in 2003. Last spring, I met Anthony at a diversity clinic here in New York. He hopped into the water and swam with the kids. He even raced a sprint 50. And sure enough, almost a decade removed from major competition, he looked like he was in much better shape than someone who was supposedly “retired.”
So, on one hand, it isn’t that much of a surprise to see that he’s competing again. And yet on the other hand, it’s a complete surprise. I’ll explain:
Ervin has hinted – and competed at masters meets – so many times now, it’s like there’s been an inner conflict inside his head: “To comeback or not to comeback?” We’ve heard the rumors before. And no one really knows if this one is even “official.” He could just want to compete for a weekend, then hang the suit up and never emerge again. Or he could be going for an Olympic Trials qualifying time. Whatever the case, though he’s slotted in seed #97 and probably won’t win this weekend, Ervin’s reemergence is a positive thing for a guy who has hinted at official comebacks numerous times before.
Ervin has already accomplished everything there is to accomplish in the sport of swimming – winning Olympic gold – and has nothing left to prove. But for whatever reason, I always felt like he had more to give. I know. It’s irrational. He did everything. He won it all. He set records. He won NCAA Championships. He won Olympic gold. But it’s how I (and many others) feel about the writer J.D. Salinger, author of “The Catcher in the Rye.” He wrote one major novel, then retired from the art of writing, leaving his masterpiece for the rest of us, and yet leaving (allegedly) thousands of other written words in the depths of his drawer.
Swimming is an intensely personal thing. Elite swimmers are artists. Each time they race, they share with the rest of us their creation, their beauty, slicing through the water, maneuvering their bodies through a foreign element. Anthony Ervin is no different, along with a few other Mozarts of our sport, like Alexander Popov or Mary T Meagher. They share with us their swimming ability. For Anthony, it’s not that he has anything left to prove. He’s already written his masterpiece.
The exciting thing is that he’s creating again.
This weekend, most people will be focused on the showdown between Michael Phelps and Nathan Adrian. With good reason. Phelps is an artist himself, and one who is refining his own technique into a more sprint-centric stroke. Adrian, meanwhile, hails from Ervin’s alma mater, Cal-Berkeley, and is another supremely talented athlete, already inheriting Ervin’s sprinting throne. It should be a phenomenal race.
I’ve never picked a preliminary race as the “Can’t Miss Race” to watch before. The men’s 100m freestyle championship final will be thrilling, edge-of-your-seat excitement. But I’m almost certain Anthony Ervin will not be in that championship final.
Instead, he’ll be in that preliminary heat. You can look for him. He’ll be the one covered in tattoos, the one who appears anything but an Olympic gold medalist. He’ll be skinnier than most of his 20-something competitors. Watching him stand on the blocks, you’ll probably wonder, “How did this guy swim so fast?”
Like any prodigal artist, Ervin and the water just make sense. Because when it comes to swimming, to paraphrase the movie quote used earlier, Ervin could always just swim. It’s the Can’t Miss Race of the weekend, because we may never see it again.