By Phillip Whitten
BERKELEY, Calif., January 9. UNIVERSITY of California Head Men's Coach, Nort Thornton, Associate Head Coach Mike Bottom and, indeed, all of USA Swimming, received an unexpected New Year's gift this week when prodigal son Anthony Ervin donned his swim suit and took the plunge.
Ervin — one of the most naturally gifted sprinters of all-time — had taken the Fall semester off to sort out some personal issues, and there was no guarantee at all that he would return to the sport that saw his unprecedented meteoric rise to the top.
Ervin entered Cal as an unheralded freshman over three years ago, but coaches Thornton and Bottom instantly recognized his potential. Before he was a sophomore, the speedy sprinter had won two Olympic gold medals and a silver, and was co-Olympic champion in the 50m free.
In 2001, he won individual gold at the World Championships in both the 50 and 100m freestyle, setting an American record in the 100 meters. At last year's NCAAs, he tied the American record in the 50 yard free and broke Matt Biondi's 100 yard mark. The future seemed limitless.
Perhaps Ervin's rise was a little too meteoric. Perhaps he was catapaulted to the top of the sporting world so quickly, he did not have time to integrate what was happening into his own psyche, his own self-conception.
Wisely, he decided to withdraw and reassess who he is and what he is about. There were no guarantees that he would ever return to the pool.
And, indeed, Anthony was a no-show for more than two months. Thornton and Bottom were left to contemplate a 2002-03 season without their biggest star. But at no time did the coaches attempt to pressure the young sprinter to return.
That decision was Anthony's alone, and he made it several days ago. Since then, he's joined his Cal teammates at the US Olympic high-altitude training center in Colorado Springs.
On Saturday, Ervin makes his 2002-03 debut in a dual meet against #1-ranked Michigan.