Aug 13, 2016
Tony Ervin wins gold at age 35, 16 years after the first one… Also – Maya Dirado is the old school throw-back as the ultimate ‘amateur’ champion; Katie Ledecky is the greatest athlete in all of Rio; and Bolles Nation rules again, with Joseph Schooling’s gold for Singapore over a trio of legends in the 100 fly… Notes on an all-time night of Olympic swimming…
Your twenties are supposed to be your prime, in sports anyway. Tony Ervin has competed in three Olympics, but none of them in his twenties. At age 19, he tied Gary Hall, Jr. for gold in the 50 free in Sydney. Then, as lore has it, he disappeared. He didn’t really. That’s when I met him, in those dark forgotten years full of rock n’ roll and booze and… well, inspiration. It was when Tony figured out what he loved about swimming in the first place, by teaching kids to swim in New York City.
He found himself and he rediscovered that monstrous dormant talent, a talent that has never been surpassed when it comes to swimming one lap of a pool faster than anyone else. In Rio that monster gift was awakened as never before. He’s the Olympic champion again in the 50. As a teenager he was the fastest man on earth through water. At age 35, he is again: The fastest human on the planet moving through earth’s most abundant surface.
It’s personal. We couldn’t be prouder of him. Tony is our Ambassador. By ‘we’ I mean Imagine Swimming, our swim school where Tony taught for a time in those ‘dark years’ that maybe weren’t so dark after all. Maybe they were the necessary night before the dawn.
When he left Imagine and New York to ‘comeback’ back in 2007 not many of us took it seriously. It was what burnt out lost champions do – they try to rediscover past glory, instead of moving on in an uncertain life full of empty options. Except Tony defied every cliché. He did rediscover it. He made the Team in London, he wrote a memoir about the journey, and then we expected him to roll on into the sunset with closure on a career aborted too soon. But he didn’t. He kept swimming, kept getting faster, and kept shrugging in the face of age and doubt.
Last year I thought he was done. You’d never tell a friend that, but we did, or at least I did. It had been an epic career, an incredible comeback, but as an Olympic year dawned my thinking was that he’d continue on through Omaha and probably place 4th or 5th at Trials.
A fine showing, a worthy way to bow out to the next generation.
Jesus, I did not expect this. Olympic Champion. 21.40. Lifetime best. Best swim of your life, now, after all that, in your mid 30s.
I haven’t finished digesting it. It’s a meal too rich. So perhaps on to the others in this most perfect night of Olympic swimming…
Maya Dirado – thank you. Not just for beating you-know-who, but also for being the ultimate throw-back. In these hypocrisy ridden days of Olympism you took us back to something that’s hard to recognize: An athlete who competes purely for love of her sport, and then is ready to move on to the rest of life. You’re pretty much what the ancient (or at least early 20th century) founders had in mind – an athlete who competes clean and unburdened by life’s monetary madness ahead. Irony of ironies, I hope you are paid handsomely for that.
Katie Ledecky – no words. No, scratch that, I’ll try some. You’re the single best athlete in all of these 2016 Olympics. Simone Biles, ok, it’s close. You’re both the Queens. There is no one else at these Games that can hold a candle to you.
As for the men’s 100 fly, did anyone expect Phelps to lose? If you’ve been paying attention to the times beyond the hype you might have. Singapore’s Joseph Schooling has been a rising player for few years now and his game was peaking. Tonight he did Bolles Nation proud. He was Nesty-esque, taking down a trio of more famous champions and charging to gold not just by a touch but by a comfortable full-stroke margin – over not just Phelps, but South Africa’s tragic trash talker Chad Le Clos and Hungary’s tragic bridesmaid Laszlo Cseh.
The University of Texas will claim him, and that’s fine, he’s won plenty of NCAA titles for the Longhorns lately, just as Cal Berkeley will claim Ryan Murphy, but these two – along with Caelab Dressel and Canada’s Santo Condorelli – come from the same pre-college place: the Bolles School, in Jacksonville, Florida. There has never been a more proven prep school in the history of this sport.
There’s also never been a greater night of Olympic swimming.