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Oldest U.S. male swimmer at Olympics dives back into competition

Anthony Ervin diving back in
Anthony Ervin diving back in 04:43

Later this week, 35-year-old Anthony Ervin will become the oldest U.S. male swimmer to compete in an individual race at the Summer Olympics since 1904. But it's not his first Olympics. He won gold in 2000 at the age of 19, then vanished from the sport entirely, reports CBS News' Jamie Yuccas.

When Ervin tied for gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, it was supposed to be the highlight of his young life.

Instead, it led to the most tumultuous time of his life.

"Part of what led to a lot of the angst initially was ... doing well and performing well, the social kind of like joy that comes from others and knowing that one has done well and you kind of get hooked on that and you kind of need that to sustain yourself and to move forward," Ervin said.

Adding to his teenage identity crisis, Ervin's parents are Jewish, Native American and African American.

"Anthony Ervin, the first swimmer of African-American descent to make the U.S. Olympic team," an NBC Olympic broadcaster said.

The only problem -- he never identified as a black man.

"It created an immense amount of confusion," Ervin said.

That confusion added to the weight of his gold medal and his two world championship titles a year later. At the height of it all, he walked away from the sport in 2003.

"Post-Olympic champion status was about re-discovering, re-building myself, the way I wanted to be, not the way others were, at least the way I perceived others wanted me to be," Ervin said.

Over the next decade, Ervin sold his gold medal, donated the money to charity, then took off on a spiritual quest. He dabbled in everything from Zen Buddhism to the hard-partying lifestyle of playing in rock bands. Instead of a pool, he sank into depression, which, at its deepest, led to a suicide attempt and a death-defying motorcycle accident. Nearing age 30, he desperately needed a shot at redemption.

"For me, getting the tattoos was a way of reclaiming my own skin, and regaining control of myself," Ervin said.

Armed with elaborate new ink, he went back to school and started coaching at a swim camp for kids. Those kids helped him remember what he loved about swimming in the first place.

"The water, when I was a child ... it was a place of freedom, it was a place of expression and play, a place where everything else can kind of fall away into this meditative state ... and, I got that back," Ervin said.

He dove back into competition and, a dozen years after his last Olympics, qualified for the 2012 Games with a personal best time in the 50 meter freestyle race. But in London, he only placed fifth.

"He's probably the most interesting human being on our team, maybe the whole Olympic team," said David Marsh, one of the U.S. swim team's head coaches.

Marsh has known Ervin since Ervin was 17 years old. Earlier this year, he started training him for another shot at gold.

"He arrived at my place about eight weeks before the Olympic trials, didn't seem as confident as I felt like he needed to be for the Games," Marsh said. "And then he just became Anthony again. Anthony has the most brilliant sprint freestyle stroke on the planet."

That stroke carried him to one of the fastest times he's ever posted at the Olympic trials earlier this summer, and earned him a ticket to Rio.

"It wasn't like I demanded this of myself," Ervin said.

He has no expectations for the future, but more importantly, no regrets about the past.

"I really try to avoid regret," he said. "I don't think anybody should be stuck in the past. That's a dead life, if you're stuck in the past. Life moves forward."

Because Ervin helped the U.S. swim team win the 400 meter relay race Sunday night, he now ties the record for longest gap of a U.S. swimmer between medals -- 16 years -- set back in 1924.

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