Swimmer Anthony Ervin: 'Winning can be a terrible thing'

The triple Olympic champion spoke to the Olympic Channel Podcast about the curse of winning, Ryan Lochte and making a realistic bid for Tokyo 2020.

By Edward Knowles

Anthony Ervin has more facial hair in real life than his Instagram profile picture.

Otherwise though – he doesn’t seem too different to when he won gold at Rio 2016.

He looks lean and every bit ready for action - even though he claims he’s far from fit for serious competition.

The 37-year-old’s life is simply unbelievable: wins Olympic gold as a teenager, hits rock-bottom, becomes homeless and attempts suicide, regains control of life, makes Olympics again, and becomes oldest ever Olympic individual medallist swimmer.

It means the American has a different attitude to winning than most.

“Winning is not the goal. Winning is just evidence of what you have done.” – Anthony Ervin


There’s a moment of triumph when stepping onto an Olympic podium that most people watching at home can’t help but envy.

All that hard work and sacrifice comes down to one moment – and then – complete elation.

After winning gold in the 50m freestyle at Sydney 2000 as a 19-year-old, found that after elation came desolation.

“Winning can be a terrible thing that happens to you. It can completely intoxicate you. It can derail you and you may distort your values and principles,” he said to the Olympic Channel Podcast.

“Winning is a test… It’s not a goal in and of itself. Winning (is) its own challenge.”

He likened the experience to that of the ancient Greek myth of Icarus – the child who flew too close to the sun and plummeted to his death.

“To fly is great – but you don’t necessarily know that you are flying when you are doing it.

Tourette’s Syndrome

When he was growing up, swimming was a sanctuary for Ervin.

He has no memories of people bullying him about his Tourette’s but he remembers the way people made him feel.

The NHS defines it as a 'condition that causes a person to make involuntary sounds and movements called tics'.

“It’s terrible for people to look at you and go ‘Why can’t you control yourself?’ And you have no answer.

“There was a contagion feel where people just wanted to stay away or couldn’t understand.”

Training in the pool with his friends was different.

“My teammates didn’t do that,” he laughs. “Our collected shared suffering really united us.”

A daughter and a new gold

Ervin re-discovered that old love for swimming and team camaraderie.

It took 16 years, but once he returned to the top of the podium at Rio 2016, he was there with a more rounded attitude.

And with a mental stability honed over that time.

“I climbed the cliff face rather than taking the windy roads up top.

“When you take the longer road, you have much more time to study an learn the path before you.”

His daughter was born during the run-up to the 2016 Olympic Games and he didn’t see her until after he returned from Brazil.

Not that she really cares too much for what her father has achieved in his career.

“She’s more excited for me to take her for some splashing in the pool.”

Anthony Ervin celebrates winning gold at Sydney 2000

Ryan Lochte

Ervin does care about his teammate and he's glad fellow American Ryan Lochte has started to face up to his issues.

A lawyer speaking on behalf of the six-time Olympic champion confirmed that the swimmer is receiving treatment for alcohol abuse.

The announcement came after he received a 14-month ban for posting a photo on social media of himself receiving an intravenous infusion.

“I am so glad and happy that he has finally admitted that he has a problem,” Ervin said.

“Because up until this recent incident – and I have seen many of them – he had yet to make that step.

“And person-to-person, man-to-man, I hope that he can grow, like, legitimately."

Banned swimmer Ryan Lochte at Halloween party

Tokyo 2020

Is it realistic to expect a 39-year-old Ervin line up to defend his 50m freestyle title at Tokyo 2020?

“I do still plan to be an athlete and re-engage with the body. And it’s not the same body as I had in 2016. It’s not the same one that I worked with in 2000.

“It’s a new machine and I need to be able to tune it and learn it all over again.”

He leans back.

“And what excites me most?” he asks wide-eyed and excited.

“How I’m going to get there!”

Anthony Ervin interviewed on the Olympic Channel Podcast

Anthony Ervin was this week’s guest on the Olympic Channel Podcast. Each week we find the biggest athletes and speakers athletes to talk about the Olympics.

Head here for ways to listen and subscribe.


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