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Men's Can't Miss Race at the World Championships

7/24/2013

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

There’s no time to second guess a 50m freestyle. The race happens too fast. As soon as the starter tones, theBarcelona 2013 (small) body must turn onto autopilot. Thoughts, insecurities, visions, and analyzing can be speed bumps that mean the difference between first and “not-first.” There are no second guesses in the lightning-quick sprint, just like there are no second chances in a swimming race. Once it is over, it is over. Until the next race, at least.

Which is what makes Anthony Ervin’s journey to Barcelona so interesting. Next week, Ervin has a “second chance,” literally. 10 years ago, Ervin competed at this exact same pool at the exact same meet. A decade later, Ervin has a second chance to swim in Barcelona once more. Which begs the question:

A second chance for what?

Ervin has already won Olympic gold. He has climbed to the sport’s highest peak and podium. He has nothing toAnthony Ervin (medium) prove to anyone. But, watching Ervin last month at the Phillips 66 National Championships, I realized that the 32-year-old Ervin is very much like so many thousands of age group swimmers who race everyday: He wants to better himself. Through training and talent and tenacity, Ervin has given himself not just a second chance, but a first chance as a completely different swimmer.

It doesn’t seem like we’re witnessing Anthony Ervin, 2000 Olympic gold medalist. That swimmer seems and feels long gone. It seems like someone new, like an upgraded Anthony Ervin 2.0. Think back to last month when some saw Ervin’s anguish – however brief it was – after the 100m freestyle. It was a quick, small grimace. A slight head-shake. A glance at the scoreboard followed by a momentarily, long, extended blink. For a split-second, the 32-year-old seemed disappointed with the result. Like he missed a valuable opportunity to prove that he is better.

It’s common after the Olympics for many elite athletes to take slightly less stock in their performances. The Olympic pressure cooker is so intense, many take vacations or reprieves from the sport. So these Olympic heroes of last year don’t throw goggles when swimming slower than personal best times. They don’t stew in anguish following a race. If Ryan Lochte swims off his best (to his credit) he shrugs it off. If Tyler Clary swims times not where they were in London, it’s not the end of the world. That’s not knocking these two legends. Many Olympians followed similar paths and took much-needed vacations following London. They needed these breaks. So if they don’t swim near their personal best times, they don’t beat themselves up. Most veterans are OK with less-than-stellar times in this post-Olympics year. But Ervin seems – even if it is hardly noticeable -- to be disappointed when he doesn’t swim a personal best time.

Why?

Flashback to last year: At the London Olympics in the 50m: Ervin came up after the dive half a body length behind. He lost before the race was ten meters in. He nearly reeled and caught the world’s greatest sprinters… but he didn’t. He swam well. But he just barely missed making the medal podium, a place he once conquered as a younger man.

Following London, it seemed as if Ervin was that age grouper who leaves the state, zone, or sectional meet then suddenly hits pool competitions with a vengeance. He toured the exhaustive, other-side-of-the-world FINA World Cup circuit, performing well and breaking an American record. He raised money through an inventive IndieGoGo campaign. He began swimming personal best times. And now he’s qualified for the World Championships.

His comeback (though he doesn’t like that term itself) is one of the most successful in recent memory. And I think it’s because this comeback isn’t a comeback at all: It feels like a journey of a different swimmer.

When other swimmers, legends like Dara Torres, make comebacks, we remember their former selves. But Ervin’s resurgence feels like he’s Anthony Ervin 2.0. His former self – that young swimmer who ascended the top podium nearly thirteen years ago -- seems like a lifetime away. I can’t explain why. Maybe because of his unusual path back to the sport. Maybe one day he’ll explain what that path entailed. Whatever happened, Ervin is back, ready for this decade-later opportunity.

And now, the best part is, Anthony Ervin 2.0 is swimming faster than Anthony Ervin, 2000 Olympic gold medalist.

Next week Ervin will get a “second chance” at the World Championships. In an event that measures itself by hundredths, 10 years is like an eternity. But Ervin’s comeback just feels different than others. And I think this is why:

Sometimes you get a second chance you never even realized you wanted. However, the term “second chance” implies an opportunity that somehow mimics or is similar to the one that came before. If you recognize that a “second chance” is really a first opportunity, then you recognize that you’re different than the swimmer who came before. Walking down a path, by its very definition, means you have seen and done things that have made you different. And when you hear that beep, and you dive into the water, and you flick that switch onto auto-pilot, your performance will be different, too.

And that’s why, I think, next week matters so much to Anthony Ervin. He’s not just racing other competition. He’s racing himself.


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