OMAHA – At some point sitting across from Anthony Ervin at a German restaurant in the East Village, I gathered he was not a “prototypical swimmer” – whatever that means. 

We had just spent the day at a diversity clinic in Flushing, New York. Anthony was brought in to teach nearly 100 kids from the greater metro area some stroke techniques. He showed up in tight-fitting pants and a black Imagine Swimming polo. He had tattoos down the full length of both arms. He looked the exact opposite you’d think an Olympic gold medalist freestyler “should” look.

Somewhere along the line, people assume elite top-level athletes must look like buff, brutish, All-AmericanAnthony Ervin (medium) linebackers. Anthony Ervin is not linebackerish; he has more the body of a punk rock guitarist than linebacker. Then again, Ervin has not approached the sport like prototypical grind-it-out athletes. After winning an Olympic gold medal at 19-years-old in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Anthony – “Tony” to friends – decided he wanted to explore other things. Other endeavors. Other interests.

And suddenly, it’s big news. Why don’t you want to win more Olympic gold medals? Why don’t you want to keep going? Don’t you love to swim? Don’t you love the sport?

Ervin joined a rock band, moved to New York, and lived life – like every single other twenty-something person I know. And yet, the level of media scrutiny that pinpoints on these “in-between years” is significant. Everyone wants to know. Everyone wants the scoop. Many want to exploit Ervin’s story in some way, some shape, some form. And I’m sure there are scoops, details, and fascinating stories. But doesn’t everyone have these? Why -- simply because Ervin can supremely swim between two walls potentially faster than anyone on Earth -- are these “in-between” years (that have nothing to do with swimming between two walls) that fascinating?

The answer, of course, is that people want to understand what they don’t understand. So they can dissect it. Compartmentalize it. Analyze it. Break it down into something logical and understandable. Which is a totally illogical thing to crave, and yet, we do so anyway.

Heading into this evening’s gargantuan Olympic Trials final of the 50m freestyle, as 14,000 eyes attempt to understand Tony’s “SLEEVE TATTS,” (a phrase Comedy Central’s Anders Holm tweeted to me last night, apparently a huge fan of Ervin’s), his persona, his using of words like “vicissitudes” in press interviews -- people will try to figure him out. And we won’t. We never will. Partially because Anthony won’t let us.

And why should he?

Imagine Swimming
For years, Anthony has taught swim lessons. He’s been involved with the water, around the sport in some capacity. Though that’s not the easy story to write – the easier story is that Anthony “came back” to the sport after eight years of disappearance.

Ervin didn’t come back. He was never really gone.

I know this because we worked for the same company here in New York City – Imagine Swimming. Co-founded by Olympian Casey Barrett and NCAA champion Lars Merseburg, Imagine Swimming is not only a wonderful group of kids, but teachers. All sorts of swim instructors and coaches come in through the Imagine Swimming doors -- many artists, many swimmers and former competitors, many of them tattooed, many who are passionate about the water, like Ervin. All of them are engaging, articulate, and caring.

See, when you work with kids, you see things as they do. Which can be fresh air for the burnt-out competitive swimmer. I remember teaching one little 6-year-old girl how to pull with her arms. I was going through the motions, showing her how I had been taught, using too many words and not enough imagination. Suddenly the girl’s eyes lit up. “So it’s like scooping a big bowl of eyeballs, right?” she asked. At Imagine, you learn to go with it – you teach the kids how they learn best. So I nodded, and scooped the eyeballs too. “Yes,” I said. “Just scoop the big bowl of eyeballs like this.”

How can you not fall in love with swimming when your day consists of conversations like that?

Last night, if you were in the CenturyLink Center stands, maybe you saw the Imagine Swimming crew. They have printed and packed special Trials T-shirts that read, “TONY ERVIN IS ROCK AND ROLL.” Maybe you saw Anthony flash a rock and roll hand signal at them upon destroying his personal best in the semifinal of the 50m freestyle (a time two tenths faster than his 2000 gold medal performance.) This Imagine Swimming/Anthony Ervin connection is bound together by mutual love of water, of education, of a passionate lifestyle – something that means much more than simply swimming fast.

And maybe that’s why Anthony resists explaining every iota of his personal life to the media, strangers, and anyone else who asks. He’s not going to tell everything that happened in those eight years of his life when he wasn’t swimming 50 freestyles. Why would he explain that portion of his life when the one in front of him – his relationship with the water – is happening before our very eyes? Isn’t it frustrating that the guy can swim a personal best time, do something he’s never done before, and walk into a media zone and be asked if he has ever had any regrets?

Of course he’s had some. Of course he’s had none at all. He’s seeded first as a 31-year-old heading into the Olympic Trials. Everything he’s done has led him here – and isn’t “here” a pretty good place to be?

The Road Less Traveled
In Flushing at the diversity swim clinic, the kids ate it up. Devoured everything Anthony told them. Listened attentively, mimicked his movements, asked him for autographs, took his picture, conversed with him, played with him, high-fived him.

For Anthony, it was another day of water education – and I mean that in the best and most genuine way. He even taught me a new drill, something that sort of looks like a gorilla-like freestyle drill. I asked him how he came up with that. He responded that he just sort of invents different drills and ways to move through the water. It’s a reflection of his cognitive approach to the sport rather than just taking any coach’s word.

Like other great artists across many facets of life, Ervin simply wants to learn.

Cal Swimming has long been at the forefront of alternative training approaches. Which could explain why they are – and have been -- so successful. Their two most individualistic and strongest personalities, Ervin and 29-year-old Natalie Coughlin, are also two of the sports most inventive, innovative thinkers. They tinker. They ask. They learn. They reflect. It’s no secret they both are still involved in the sport at an age once considered “ancient.”

It’s this alternative, individualistic, cerebral thinking about the sport and the water in its most elemental form that makes Ervin different than most swimmers he competes against. Ask most swimmers about their practices, they’ll tell you set times, repeats, paces. But they can’t tell you why. Ask them about races, they can tell you splits and strategies, but they can’t tell you the philosophy, or the precision, the music, the rock-and-roll essence of the thing itself.

This constant, never-ending why has led Ervin to his successes, his “disappearances,” and his emergences. It’s this why that has led him to where he is now – still striving to learn. Learning his body. Learning how to adjust through the element. He’s grown up – or as he likes to phrase it, he’s “turned 30.” But old dogs can learn new tricks.

They swim best times, too.

And maybe that’s why Ervin is back in the competitive gauntlet. Maybe he was teaching another swimmer, and maybe he pushed off the wall to grab a discarded toy, and maybe he zoomed through the water like no one in history has ever done, and maybe thought, “Hey, maybe I should---”

There I go again. Trying to compartmentalize Ervin’s journey.

Later, near the end of the Metro Diversity Clinic, Anthony stepped up on the blocks and raced. The kids screamed, wild with glee. The parents filmed. Anthony swam something astronomical – like a 20-point. The coaches smiled and turned to each other and said, “WOW.” We didn’t yet know what we were witnessing. And maybe another reporter would tell you this race at this small swim clinic was the start of Anthony’s “comeback.”

But it wasn’t. Anthony Ervin was never gone. He simply took a different path.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer with and Splash Magazine. Follow him at @MikeLGustafson.