RIO DE JANEIRO -- In order to reach the starting blocks of the Olympic 50-meter freestyle final, Anthony Ervin had to get down on one knee. It wasn't a formal prayer, but rather a humble and fearless admission that he wasn't done learning at age 35.
In pursuit of a third Olympic appearance 16 years after his first, Ervin migrated to Charlotte in the spring of 2016 to train with veteran head coach David Marsh and a stellar training group at the SwimMAC Carolina Elite club.
"I've got no pixie dust,'' Marsh told Ervin, but he was happy to have him. Ervin commands respect among his fellow athletes for his fluid technique in the pool and the wisdom gained from diverse and sometimes wrenching experiences during a eight-year hiatus from the sport. He makes people around him laugh, he makes them think, and he makes them stare in wonder at the way he arrows through the water.
Ervin was in need of help with one crucial flaw: His dive. Like a gymnast's early bobble on the balance beam, fractions lost on the start can cancel out the other 20-plus seconds of brilliant execution in the 50 free.
"The best in the water, the worst off the blocks,'' Marsh said. "Tony's so good up on the surface of the water. We want to get him up there quick as we can.''
Marsh's club has the use of a contraption called a Kistler machine, which overlays a starting block with force plates and measures a swimmer's acceleration out of the dive through the first 15 meters. The coach tried adjusting Ervin's feet, making subtle changes to pressure and weight shift.
Finally, he decided to strip things down. Marsh took Ervin to the deep end of the pool, put a kickboard on the ground and had him kneel, point his hands and plunge, just as the coach would with a 10-year-old. "Diving 101,'' Marsh said. "Then we progressed to standing up -- literally, he did dives like a novice swimmer. We took it all the way back there, and somewhere in there, we found it.''
The deconstruction gave Ervin an average of about three-tenths of a second over the first 15 meters -- a pinch of pixie dust that has helped propel him into Friday night's 50-meter final, within reach of an individual Olympic medal for the second time since he tied Gary Hall Jr. for gold as a raw 19-year-old in Sydney in 2000.
Ervin auctioned off that medal for tsunami relief in 2004 after the massive loss of life in Indonesia. He was done with elite sport and all its trappings at that point, done with people trying to mine his mixed racial and ethnic heritage to reach some greater conclusion. He had detoured into a different kind of fast lane, immersing himself in self-discovery via self-destruction, and navigating some riptides along the way.
"It gains so much momentum from your youth and it becomes an existential question: 'Did I exist just for this?' '' Ervin told me of the disorientation he felt in his early 20s. " 'What now? Where is the purpose?' Sometimes there's no answers at all and there's this silence that can whisk something out of you.'' He filled the void by self-medicating with drugs, sex, a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit and progressively riskier motorcycle rides that brought him to a literal precipice. Ervin chronicled that journey in a recent memoir, "Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian,'' written in alternating sections of first- and third-person with co-author Constantine Markides.
Writing about the aftermath of one especially reckless trip, Ervin recalled, "In one fell swoop, that sense of invincibility that I've been feeling for so long evaporates in a snarling hangover of coke and Vodka and acid... I could have and should have died last night.''
In Berkeley last year, many months before the book was released, Ervin gave me a preview of how forthright it would be, and added, "I hope my parents are OK with it.'' This week, his mother Sherry said she stood behind his right to tell the story but hopes he writes a sequel, or at least an epilogue. She didn't understand the depth of his darkness, "and in retrospect, I'm glad,'' she said on the phone from South Carolina. "I wouldn't have been able to do anything about it, anyway. Anthony digs in his heels, and if you push him, he just digs harder.''
Tony, as he's known nearly everywhere in swimming except the official start sheets, was Sherry and Jack Ervin's middle son of three, innately warm and generous and such an avid reader that Sherry found herself unable to carry through with the sternest punishment she tried to impose -- taking away his books. At 11, Ervin was diagnosed with a mild form of Tourette's Syndrome that had to be managed with medication.
As a teenager, Ervin's original spirit and his athletic talent alchemized into one ropy, elegant world-class sprinter who endeared himself to a series of coaches -- all of whom are invisibly embedded in his stroke.
"He will never fit into anyone's system, but benefits from everyone's system,'' said Mike Bottom, the University of Michigan head coach who was one of Ervin's early mentors at Cal. Ervin returned there to train with men's and women's head coaches Dave Durden and Teri McKeever in his 2011 comeback, and also did a stint at Dave Salo's Trojan Swim Club at the University of Southern California before alighting in Charlotte last spring.
Teaching inner-city kids to swim was an important part of Ervin's journey back to the pool, which makes it all the more fitting that he was willing to go back to a childhood space with Marsh to rebuild his dive. But that was just the final tweak after years of internal work to "travel at great speed with little effort,'' as the coach put it.
It shows on land as well. At the U.S. Olympic swim trials in Omaha last month, hundreds of children, senior citizens and adults in between lined up for an autograph and a few words from the man with the high-wattage smile and the inked arms. Behind Ervin was a giant cover image of his book, which depicts him underwater in the lotus position, floating taut but somehow comfortably -- which sums him up in general. He has transitioned into being a more public person without artificial packaging, a true feat in the world of Olympic sport, where narratives are often enhanced with a little helium.
"Maybe you've just gotta drink some of your own Kool-Aid to know you're gonna make it through,'' Ervin said, speaking of the dips and spikes of any athlete's life, and specifically about himself. "After all, you did become an Olympian, against all those odds. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it's OK to encourage others to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but if you do, just remember, some people have no boots.
"That being said, anyone who's an Olympian or an Olympic champion, they have their own boots.''
With understandable pride, Sherry Ervin said her son has already won by getting to Rio, whatever the outcome. He already has a 4x100 freestyle relay gold at this meet that is a tribute not only to his talent, but also the years he's put into enhancing team chemistry as a co-captain.
"His ambition is to finish well, and he's not finished yet,'' Marsh said after Ervin qualified for the 2016 team in Omaha. After all these years in the water, that finish could come down to the open mind that gave him a fresh start.