Anthony Ervin finally has an Olympic gold medal to replace the one he sold 16 years ago.
The 35-year-old American won the men's 50-meter freestyle at the Rio Games on Friday, capping a night of upsets in the pool.
Ervin improbably touched first in 21.40 seconds — a hundredth of a second ahead of defending champion Florent Manaudou of France. Teammate and former training partner Nathan Adrian claimed bronze.
U.S. & World
"It's surreal, kind of absurd," Ervin said. "When I touched and turned around and saw the '1' next to my name, I kind of smiled and laughed."
Katie Ledecky, his 19-year-old teammate and multiple gold medalist, marveled at Ervin's feat.
"Wow, who does that, winning 16 years apart?" she said. "That's like me winning gold in London and then not winning an individual gold medal until 2028. He's taken such a leadership role and it definitely rubs off on everybody."
It didn't come easily.
At the 2000 Sydney Games, Ervin tied teammate Gary Hall Jr. for gold in the 50 free, making him one of the sport's rising stars. But he stunningly walked away in 2003, burned out on swimming and seeking to find a deeper meaning to life. He auctioned off his gold medal for $17,100 and donated the proceeds to help victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Ervin readily admitted he lost his silver from the 400 free relay in Sydney.
Ervin returned to make the American team in 2012, but finished fifth in the 50.
He'd fallen in love with the sport again, thriving on the love of family, friends and teammates, who at times over the years since Sydney had no idea where he was in the world. Ervin broke away from the winner's stroll on deck to share wild hugs with his brother and his "ride or die friends, the bam-bam fam."
"If I've achieved anything great, it's because I was upon their shoulders and they lifted me up," he said.
Ervin is easily identifiable in the splash-and-dash race by his sleeve of tattoos on each churning arm. He turns interviews into a discussion on everything from philosophy to Biblical parables. Earlier this year, he detailed his life's adventures, including drugs and sex, in a book called "Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian."
This is a guy who lists "rock star" as his future professional aspiration in his USA Swimming biography.
Ervin revealed a surprise after his win: he became a father during the U.S. Trials last month. He had planned on attending his daughter's birth, but he was still at the meet and then got caught up in Olympic preparations.
"Oh man, it's like a thunderbolt," he said, declining to reveal her name. "I haven't had a chance to meet her yet and I tried to send a message to her after my race."
After leaving the sport in 2003, Ervin spent eight years working odd jobs, moved from California to New York and then back again, and finished his college degree at California. In Berkeley, Ervin was coaching young kids at the pool when he rediscovered his love of the sport that remains to this day.
Unlike many swimmers who focus on getting their hand on the wall first, Ervin favors an intellectual approach.
"You just think about trying to swim the race that you imagine you can do," he said. "Maybe it starts as a dream and then it's a plan. You plan to do something and you start testing that plan. I don't think my age should limit me and I don't think fear of defeat should limit me either."
The gold medal hung around Ervin's neck, seemingly more comfortably than it did in Sydney, when he was 19 and restless.
"I'm keeping it for now," he said. "Who knows what the future holds?"