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Meet American Olympian Anthony Ervin: The Oldest-Ever Individual Olympic Swimming Gold Medalist

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While Michael Phelps dominated the Olympic headlines over the weekend by scoring a historic 23rd gold medal, another American male swimmer has also made history in Rio. Thirty-five-year-old Anthony Ervin became the oldest-ever individual Olympic swimming gold medalist when he won two gold medals for the men’s 50-meter freestyle and the men’s four-by-100-meter freestyle relay. For more, we go to Rio to speak with Ervin, who is also the author of the recent book titled “Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re in Rio de Janeiro—at least that’s where our guests are. We’re joined by Jesse Washington of The Undefeated, as well as Anthony Ervin, U.S. swimming champion and four-time Olympic medalist. At 35 years old, he’s the oldest-ever individual Olympic swimming gold medalist. Just wrote the book Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian.

Anthony, welcome to Democracy Now! Congratulations on your remarkable victory. Talk about how you feel right now and what it means to you.

ANTHONY ERVIN: Thank you for having me. I feel good. Got some lights burning right into me, and I’m staring into a vacuum to talk back to you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about how you felt when you realized—when did you realize you had won, with all those toddlers in the pool, you at 35?

ANTHONY ERVIN: Oh, they’re hardly toddlers. That was a very competitive field of athletes that I’ve raced frequently over the last four years. But I knew right away. Right away, I turned around, looked right up at the scoreboard, saw the one next to my name. And immediately, it was this sense of almost ridiculousness and surrealness that I was Olympic champion again. And I smiled and kind of laughed for a moment. And then, I knew that my brother, my friends who came down were up in the stands, so I hopped up on a lane line and yelled to them as loud as I could.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re being called the Usain Bolt of swimming, or maybe he’ll be called the Anthony Ervin of track. But you have come to this with a very—through a very unusual journey. You gave this all up after the Olympics in Sydney, when you also won, right? You won gold and then auctioned off your medal to help the people of the tsunami in Thailand who suffered.

ANTHONY ERVIN: Yeah, the Indian Ocean tsunami, that’s right. Yeah, I had—that was a long time ago. And I feel like I’ve come so far, traveled quite a ways to arrive back at this point. But the view is quite a bit different than it was 16 years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was in the year 2000. Why did you give it up then? And talk about your journey, your conversion. You became a Buddhist. Talk about your life in these 16 years.

ANTHONY ERVIN: Oh, man, that takes a while, you know? Wrote a whole book about it, and even that seemed like it was cut short. Where to begin? Let’s see. I stopped because—well, the reason I was into it, the reason why I swim, is because I enjoy it. And, you know, I enjoyed the competitiveness of it, and I had the Olympic dream. And after having achieved the Olympic dream and winning my gold medal, you know, for me, that was it. That was all I really had considered. And that the idea that I could be standing here, right now, talking to whoever may be listening about it, that wasn’t in the cards initially. That wasn’t part of my—that wasn’t part of my dream. But that was the reality. And I did not want to deal with it. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was scared to deal with it. I didn’t feel like I had the education to really support coming on here and trying to give in such a manner. So, having accomplished my goals in the pool, I wanted to go and try to reach out to some other goals that I had sacrificed along the way. So, I went and did a bunch of other things. Yes, I discovered Buddhism at one point. I was still swimming then. I was trying to find some kind of balance, and I found the practice of meditation to be quite fulfilling for me and ethically, morally educational. And—but, you know, things changed. It was a long, long route, a lot of ups and downs—I don’t want to get too much into them.

But when I—you know, I was invited to New York to teach kids to swim. And it was there that I rediscovered my love for the water, I think, over the course of the time and the competition, that sense of play that I saw in the kids. You know, initially, they were very afraid, very afraid of the water—and for good reason, because it can be dangerous, and that’s why we learn to swim. That’s why it’s important that everybody learns to swim. It’s a life-saving skill. But once they have overcome that, once they start getting that, then you see them play. They start going under the water. They don’t really listen to you anymore. It becomes a challenge to teach, because they’re just immersed in the element, and they’re free and suspended in it, and they can do and be whatever they want in those moments. And that was what I initially loved about it. And I had lost that. But after rediscovering it through them, you know, I knew that there was more for me to do. I wanted more for myself. And so I went back to school, finished my degree. And shortly thereafter, after starting graduate school, actually, you know, I smoked my last cigarette, and then I went swimming, and have been in and out of the pool since.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony, you write in your beautiful book, Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian, about what it was like after you won in 2000—you won that gold medal—about being promoted as an African-American trailblazer, when you felt, at that point, as a teen, you hadn’t really grown up with that black identity. Can you talk about your life in that way, who your parents are?

ANTHONY ERVIN: Sure. You know, my mom, she came from New York City. She’s a city gal. You know, she even keeps her own—her personal history is a mystery, even to me and the rest of us kids. And my dad came from West Virginia. You know, his father was a coal miner. And, you know, he was—I mean, the question of blackness, you know, is a question of authenticity. And to be viewed in that way—and swimming is—it’s a very visual sport. It’s a body. You know, literally, you’re a body in the water, wearing close to nothing, so that body is on display. And if we’re talking about blackness, blackness is a color. You know, it’s—in the eyes of many, it’s a skin tone. You know, but then, if you dig into the history of it, there’s the idea of hypodescent. You know, one drop of blood makes you black. So, it’s all very complicated, and I didn’t know about any of this. I wasn’t educated on the history of this. Or if I was, I was snoozing through it in classrooms. So, I didn’t know how to necessarily answer to it. And I had trouble tackling, trying to argue that, you know, I authentically am this, if others say I’m not, or people trying to posit some kind of identity on me which I did not drape on myself. I mean, it’s a question of being able to pursue my personal freedom and needing to shuck all forms of identity in order to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Your father is African-American, Native American?

ANTHONY ERVIN: Not Native American. That was debunked. He believes it, and all of his—a bunch of his family believe it. But then, one of my sisters researched it; apparently it’s not true. I think that’s kind of common.


ANTHONY ERVIN: But I read it all the time, and it’s like—it’s not true. If it’s Native American, it’s just because there’s a history dating back to slave days and fighting in the Civil War and the Revolutionary War in my family.

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