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By John Lohn
OMAHA, Nebraska, June 30. COMEBACKS usually go one way or another. They can be a thing of a beauty, complete with a happy ending. Or, they can be a total disaster. Count the comeback of Anthony Ervin in the first category, particularly after the way he performed during the preliminaries of the 50 freestyle at the United States Olympic Trials.
Anyone familiar with Ervin knows all about his raw talent and gift for speed. Still, how many people could predict what he unloaded on Saturday morning? Racing in the last of 17 preliminary heats, the 31-year-old posted a time of 21.83, the sixth-swiftest clocking in the world this year and the top time of the morning session.
Let's put Ervin's effort into perspective. When the California-Berkeley product shared the gold medal in the 50 free with Gary Hall Jr. at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, he managed a time of 21.98. Meanwhile, his personal-best in the event is 21.80, produced in the final of the 2000 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. Now, a little more than a year into his comeback, he's among the quickest sprinters in the world.
While Ervin is not in the same realm as Brazil's Cesar Cielo, he's put himself in the same time zone as Brazilian Bruno Fratus, Australian James Magnussen and Russia's Andrey Grechin.
“Did I think I had that in me,” Ervin said. “I wanted to believe I did, but I didn't know for sure. As a competitor, you put in all the preparation and see what you got. Maybe I got lucky. Hopefully, I have two more of them in me.”
Earlier in the week, Ervin was tabbed as a candidate to qualify for the London Games as a member of the United States' 400 freestyle relay. That event didn't go the way Ervin planned, however, as he failed to advance out of the semifinal round. Still, the 50 free — since the start of his comeback — has been viewed as his best chance at another Olympic ticket.
Ervin's story has been well-chronicled in the leadup to the Trials, so we'll stick to the abbreviated version as a recap. After the 2001 World Championships, where he won gold in the 50 and 100 freestyles, Ervin vanished from the sport. For the next decade, he hopped to a variety of locales, taught swim lessons and auctioned off his Olympic gold medal to help victims of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
When his return to competition was revealed, there were uncertainties as to what it would produce. Would Ervin rekindle the stardom of his past? Would he burn out and disappear again? Nobody knew for sure. Now, we know what he is capable of doing, and it includes being a medal factor in London, provided Ervin successfully negotiates the semifinals and championship final.
Despite his less-than-stellar showing in the 100 free, which equated to a 13th-place finish in 49.46, Ervin was able to draw a few positives out of that event. The biggest plus was his ability to show some early speed. Ervin's problem was staying strong over the final lap, not a surprising development considering his comeback continues to be a work in progress. The one-lap sprint was a different story, and Ervin was eager to pop an impressive time.
“I went for it and didn't hold back,” said Ervin, easily distinguishable by his arm-sleeve tattoos. “Now I have to go out and repeat it, and try to improve.”
There's no telling what Ervin could have accomplished had he remained in the sport over the past decade. Given his innate talent, he likely would have been a prime medal contender at the past two Olympiads in Athens and Beijing. More, he could have done some serious damage at the World Championships and on the world-record books. Maybe he would have been compared to Russian legend Alex Popov as one of the greatest sprint freestylers in history.
Of course, that's all speculation. The great thing is that Ervin's back, and racing like a champion again.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn