By Clara Ferreira-Marques
LONDON (Reuters) - From the Shakespearean references in his post-race comments, to his thick-rimmed glasses and tattoos covering both his arms, Anthony Ervin is not your average U.S. Olympic swimmer.
Not many of his U.S. team mates have worked in a tattoo parlour, played guitar in a band called Weapons of Mass Destruction or had a near-death experience on a motorcycle while trying to evade the police.
Twelve years after he won gold and silver in Sydney and a decade after quitting the sport, the 31-year-old sprinter staged an unlikely comeback by qualifying for the London Games.
On Friday, he said his 50 metres freestyle final, in which he finished fifth overall, closed the circle.
"Just being here at all is a dream come true," he said, comparing his return to that of Prospero, in Shakespeare's Tempest. "Prospero was returning to where he came from. I feel that my being here is my own form of redemption."
The first African-American to represent the U.S. in an Olympic swimming team, Ervin won the 50 freestyle at just 19 at Sydney, in a dead heat with team mate Gary Hall Jr..
A year later, he won the sprint double at the world championships in Japan.
But in 2003, just 22, he hung up his goggles and auctioned his Olympic medals. He fell into a bohemian lifestyle, grew dreadlocks and worked a string of odd jobs, later trying to find himself through Sufi mysticism and by fasting at Ramadan.
He eventually waded back into swimming, as a coach.
When he decided to compete again, not only did he qualify for the U.S. Team, grabbing the second spot, but in qualifying for Friday's sprint final he twice swam faster than the 21.98 seconds that it took him to win gold in Sydney.
"I'm not saving a life or detonating the sun," he told one past interviewer. "I'm just swimming one lap. It's a stunt, a well-performed acrobatic."
The 50 sprint is the aquatic equivalent of the 100 in athletics - all testosterone and aggression in the ready room, then power and waves in the pool, with some of the most colourful personalities in the sport.
Ervin was competing against past record holders, past medallists and defending Olympic champion Cesar Cielo.
France's Florent Manaudou won the race with a time of 21.34 seconds, while Ervin's team mate Cullen Jones took silver.
Brazil's Cielo came third. Overcome with emotion and frustration, he wept as he walked off the podium.
The 25-year-old, who holds the world record for both the 50 and the 100, had not been beaten over the shorter distance at a major international event since winning in Beijing in 21.3 seconds to become the first Brazilian swimmer to take gold.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)