Archive | 10:06 AM

Book Review: Chasing Water by Anthony Ervin and Constantine Markides

28 Jul

I’ve had this book on my shelves for a long time. I’ve talked about it before, but I’m a big fan of my local bookstore, Literati, and I’m even more excited that one of the owners used to write for a swimming magazine and has a lot of famous swimmers visit the store to promote their books. Anthony Ervin was the first swimmer I met in this capacity back in 2016. He was doing a press tour for his book, co-written with Constantine Markides, and had just won the gold medal for the 50 freestyle at the Rio games. It was one of the coolest M&Gs of my life.

Cover image via Amazon

Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian by Anthony Ervin and Constantine Markides

Summary from Amazon:

Ervin won a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games at the age of nineteen. He is an athlete branded with a slew of titles including being the first US Olympic swimmer of African American descent, along with Jewish heritage, who also grew up with Tourette’s syndrome. He shocked the sporting world by retiring soon after claiming two world titles following the 2000 Olympics. Auctioning off his gold medal for charity, he set off on a part spiritual quest, part self-destructive bender that involved Zen temples, fast motorcycles, tattoo parlors, and rock ‘n’ roll bands. Then Ervin resurfaced in 2012 to not only make the US Olympic team twelve years after his first appearance, but to continue his career by swimming faster than ever before.

I’ve been swimming since 1999 and I’ve always loved following the sport. The 2000 Olympics are the first I remember vividly watching. While I don’t remember Ervin’s race in particular, I remember falling in love with my swimming icons and I’ve been following them ever since. Ervin was a big name at the 2012 games in London, talking about a come-back 12 years in the making. (I embedded the race below, they mention it when he walks out. Spoiler, he comes in 5th.) He was an old man by pro swimming standards and even making the finals was crazy. Flash forward to 2016 and the Rio games and his feat seemed even more amazing. But this book focuses on what happens outside of the pool more than inside it. (I’ve embedded that one, too. It makes me cry every time. Especially after reading this book.)

Ervin is very honest and real about his life. It wasn’t the typical athlete’s journey. He always seemed to resent his talent growing up and after Sydney, he fell into sex, drugs, and rock and roll. That’s not the person you expect to come back and win Olympic gold. His story had a lot of soul searching and it was sometimes hard to read. As a swimmer, I’m absolutely repulsed by smoking, a habit Ervin had for both marijuana and tobacco. As an athlete, I avoid risks that could end in injuries like motorcycles, which Ervin rode hard and crashed. He seems hard to believe. His journal entries and writing from the times show his state of mind and how confused he seemed to be. Markides’s journalistic narration was a great way to connect these writings and show how Ervin morphed with time.

Me, my friend Evan, Ervin, and Markides. Evan and I are wearing Ervin’s Gold Medals from the 2016 games.

I loved hearing about Ervin’s mother. I thought she was such an interesting character. She was very controlling, as some mothers are, and pushed her boys to be great. I thought she gave Ervin a good structure and the ability to be disciplined. Perhaps he rebelled against her. But in the end, he still found the structure and discipline she’d equipped him with to be an Olympic champion.

I related to the athletics and training Ervin went through. I was shocked at how many practices he missed in college and that he could stay on the team with that track record. When he buckled down and swam, I could relate. That’s how I train for swimming and triathlon. It’s long, grueling, and wonderful. It’ leaves you hungry enough to eat an entire casserole by yourself. I related to the grind and how when you’re in it, it’s the best thing ever.

Ervin’s return to swimming was so inspiring. It’s something that doesn’t happen in swimming, a sport that favors young athletes. The first swimmer I remember making epic comebacks was Dara Torres, who swam her 6th and final Olympics in Beijing at the age of 41 (yeah, crazy). I embedded the relay she anchored and won Silver below. I bet you didn’t think this book review would also be a swimming history lesson, did you? Comebacks like Torres and Ervin are rare, but they’re so inspiring. Our bodies atrophy as we age, but we can keep them working and performing, even at a world-class level, when we try. Achievement isn’t just for the young.

Hearing how Ervin wondered for years was difficult. He moved across the country, swimming and playing music, doing drugs, and doing nothing. It was hard to read about someone who clearly felt lost and had no direction. If someone had told him during that time that he had another Olympic gold in him, he never would have believed it.

Ervin’s story is one of redemption and persistence. He was forgiven from the time he spent away from the sport and the people who helped him when he was lost continued to support him and help him find direction. He came back to school to study English, something he loved. Eventually, he returned to the pool where he could chase his dream again. Unlike in 2000, it didn’t come easy. He had to come in 5th in 2012 to win gold in 2016.

Writer’s Takeaway: This is a book with two authors. Ervin’s part makes up about 20% of the story. He uses his writings from the time and his memories to write. I’d call it a narrative non-fiction style. It contrasted well with Markides’ journalistic writing. He connected the dots where there was missing information and brought in other people from Ervin’s life to share a different perspective. It was a great combination of two voices to create a story.

A strong story about a legendary athlete. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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