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Olympian, four-time gold medalist, visits UH to inspire


“The moment that I won, the thrill of victory was gone within three seconds and the responsibilities of what I then had to carry were coming forward,” said Anthony Ervin, four-time gold medalist swimmer, of the burden of fame. | Ajani Stewart/The Cougar

On Wednesday, Olympian Anthony Ervin took the stage of the Student Center South Theater to discuss his newly-released memoir, Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian.  As someone who overcame adversity, the four-time gold medalist spoke to University of Houston students about his struggles with fame, addiction, depression and overcoming all odds by returning to the Olympic Games 16 years after his first win.

The Cougar sat down with Ervin before his speech to learn about his college experiences.

The Cougar: How did competing in the Olympics reshape your college experience?

Anthony Ervin: I went to college twice. The first time, I was a Division I student athlete, and it colored it quite heavily. My sophomore, junior and senior years, I was an Olympic champion. So (it affected) how I was perceived by the student body if they knew these things than if they didn’t know who I was, if I had some preservation of anonymity.”

TC: Did that make it harder or easier?

AE: Harder because then everybody comes with a whole battery of expectations and/or hopes of what you would be, and I was just a relatively sheltered kid that was just beginning to flex his freedom of being away from home, especially considering I had just went back to the Olympics and won.

TC: What did it mean to you back then to be a champion?

AE: A lot of us (athletes) would dream of being an Olympic champion, but I don’t think very many people think about — I certainly didn’t think about — what that means. It’s just a sport. It’s just swimming, and yet so much can be imbued into that. There’s a responsibility there. I have an ability to respond to those expectations, thoughts, hopes, and dreams of other people. But at nineteen, I certainly did not feel ready to carry the weight of that.

TC: What did the following years look like?

AE: From burnout to washout, drugs, alcohol and depression until ultimately, I quit and walked away from it all. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I got back to being an athlete again and I went to the Olympics after training seriously for maybe 6 months. I thought I could still be a lot better, did another four years full time, and now I’m a champion.

TC: How did you turn yourself around and get back into swimming?

AE: It wasn’t necessarily deliberate. In grad school, in a theoretical foundations course, our assignment was to write an autobiography of our life in sport. And it was a hard semester for me. At one point I thought I was done, and I was dropping out again, because I couldn’t confront all of these skeletons. It was one thing to study something largely unrelated to me, but this was hard. It was immensely hard. There was a lot of pain there and suffering, but being stubborn at the same time of being unwilling to give up again, I did it. I wrote that paper. There was an immediate catharsis from having turned it in.

TC: Was that the moment you decided to change?

AE: I knew that I had an opportunity there. The semester was over. I had been smoking cigarettes for eight or nine years and having purged all of that, I wanted to get to know my body again. I wanted it to belong to me. I wanted to quit smoking. That had been perpetually on my mind for years. I would measure my time in cigarettes because I didnt use a watch. I would measure ‘that’s a four-cigarette walk to there’. I was insentivized to create a new pattern, so I smoked my last cigarette right as I turned in that paper and I started working out.

TC: Did you realize then that you wanted to compete again?

AE: There was no ambition to compete for a long time. Fortunately, I had people around me who knew— coaches who were talented enough to see that I still had the gift and convinced me, not to necessarily compete but to see it so I could be a part of that scene again, to get me to come out of retirement, make myself open and vulnerable to drug testing to make sure I wasn’t cheating.

TC: Are you going to keep swimming in the future?

AE: I’m always going to keep swimming. Swimming gives me a certain piece of mind. As far as competitive ambitions go, I know that’s kind of run its course. But I’m gonna give it the ‘ole college try for another four years to make sure that the next guys that go to the Olympics know they’re better than me.

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