CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Anthony Ervin is beyond the comeback stage. Now, he's just trying to be the man to beat in swimming's most chaotic race.
The two-time Olympian knocked off an impressive field in the 50-meter freestyle at the Arena Grand Prix in Charlotte, tearing through the one-lap dash with a blistering in-season time of 22.01 seconds Saturday night.
He knocked off fellow Olympians Cullen Jones, Tyler McGill, Ricky Berens and Britain's Adam Brown.
"Did it catch me off guard? Yeah!" Ervin said. "Training's been so hard that feeling good and feeling fast has been sparse -- real, real sparse. Being that I flew in last night, I wasn't expecting to be that fast. I'm relieved. It feels good. This definitely gives me a confidence boost."
Jones finished third at 22.16, just behind Brazil's Marcelo Chierighini at 22.09. McGill was fifth (22.77) and Berens settled for seventh (22.97), both competing in events that aren't part of their normal program. Berens said it was the first time he's raced the 50 in four years.
Still, it was an impressive performance by Ervin, who left the sport for eight years after winning gold at the 2000 Sydney Games. The 31-year-old returned to swimming in 2011, made the U.S. team for the London Games, and finished fifth in the 50 free.
Having recaptured his love for the sport, he shows no signs of slowing down with the world championships approaching this summer in Barcelona.
"I know I'm definitely, like, top 10 in the world," Ervin said. "I don't consider myself quite yet a tier-one sprinter. But hopefully by the end of the summer, I will be."
That's certainly a change from last summer, when he was just glad to make it to London. These days, he's setting much higher goals.
"I was just so excited and thrilled to be part of (the Olympics). I really didn't have anything to do other than just do my best. It was like a whole new thing," Ervin said. "That was great for last year. This year, I feel like I have something to prove. I have goals that kind of reach beyond what I was doing last year."
Jessica Hardy picked up her third victory of the meet in the women's 50 free, topping another strong field. She won with a time of 25.09, edging Madison Kennedy and Megan Romano, who tied for second in 25.12. Olympian Dana Vollmer was fourth (25.80), while two other members of last year's U.S. team were farther back -- Amanda Weir took sixth (25.88), followed by Lia Neal (25.89).
Mike Alexandrov joined Hardy as a three-time winner in Charlotte, winning the 200 breaststroke in 2 minutes, 13.60 second. Annie Zhu claimed the women's 200 breast in 2:27.16.
In the 100 backstroke, Romano made up for her runner-up finish in the 50 free by winning in 1:00.83. Andrew teDuits claimed the men's 100 back in 54.43.
The women's 400 free went to Chloe Sutton, who held off Gillian Ryan by six-tenths of a second with a time of 4:09.10. Connor Jaeger was the men's winner in 3:48.77, blowing away the field by a full 2 seconds.
In the 200 butterfly, Singapore's Joseph Schooling took the men's race in 1:57.79 for his second victory of the meet, while Andreina Pinto of Venezuela claimed the women's race in 2:12.40.
Vollmer came back to easily win the 50 butterfly in 26.18. Chierighini, the 50 free runner-up, was the men's winner in 23.72.
Ryan Lochte swam in only one event on the night. He was sixth in the 100 back, more than a second behind teDuits.
"The time was good for where I'm at," said Lochte, who only resumed full-time training in the past two weeks after wrapping his reality TV show. "The place (stunk)."
Lochte has already gotten a reality check from his coach, Gregg Troy.
"He yelled at me. He gave it to me good," Lochte said. "He was like, `You know what? You've been messing up this whole year. If you don't watch it, you're not going to make worlds.' I trust him with my life. He's the world's best coach. I'm going to listen to him. It's my time to get in gear."
But Lochte acknowledged there's no way he'll be in the same condition he was last summer, when he won two golds, two silvers and a bronze in what was actually considered a bit of a disappointing Olympic performance.
"I don't really know what to expect," Lochte said. "I'm not going to be in top peak shape. I just haven't done it this year. But the times and the effort I've been putting in are getting up there."
He'll compete at two more meets -- a Canadian event, then the Grand Prix stop in Santa Clara -- before the U.S. world team trials in June.
"A month ago, I was a little nervous," Lochte said. "But now, I'm feeling better. The past two weeks have been really good. It's given me my confidence back."
Ervin is taking his career on a year-to-year basis, though he concedes the idea of competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics is appealing.
So far, so good.
"We're so happy to see him back in the pool," Berens said. "He's one of the guys we looked up to, so seeing him come back and put up times like that, it's awesome."
Berens has no doubt that Ervin will keep right on swimming through the Rio Games.
"He's going to be Dara Torres' age," quipped Berens, referring to the five-time Olympian who competed into her 40s. "In 2012, he was just excited about being back in the pool. Now, it's turned into, how fast can I go? He's like an age-grouper right now, just enjoying everything he's doing. I wouldn't put it past him to swim another four years."
Ervin has no regrets about his long layoff from swimming, or a flinch at the start of last year's Olympic final that might've cost him a medal.
"It's always about looking forward," he said. "I'm not really holding onto anything in the past. That really doesn't do me any good. When I say I have something to prove, it's not to prove I can beat everybody else. It's something I have to prove to myself, what I can do with my own training and my own times."
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