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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BILL PLASCHKE

Melting Pool

Hall and Ervin Show What's Good About U.S. (and Olympics) With Dead-Heat for Gold in 50 Free

September 23, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — America, the beautiful.

Two guys from different neighborhoods, with different skin tones, in different shoes.

Two guys winning the same Olympic race, at the same time, for the same flag.

Our country doesn't always work so well.

But when it does, when it churns and swirls and pushes breathlessly toward the edges of achievement and imagination, our country sings.

America, the beautiful.

That's how it looked Friday when a wacky white kid from Phoenix and a quiet kid of African American heritage from Valencia fell into each other's dripping arms.

That's how it felt when they walked with each other, laughing and high-fiving strangers, to a medal stand.

That's how it sounded when they climbed solemnly to the same spot at the top of that stand, together.

Swimming 50 meters in separate lanes but as one body, Gary Hall Jr. and Anthony Ervin touched something beyond the end of the pool.

Finishing in a dead-solid tie for first place at 21.98 seconds, their Olympic victory wasn't about only the medal, but the montage.

"It was amazing," said Gary Hall Sr., the father. "Two guys with such diverse backgrounds. They look different, they act different, but then they merge their talents together and both come away victorious."

Sound like anybody you know?

Sound like, maybe, us? At our best?

At the conclusion of the race, with fans audibly gasping like the swimmers, Ervin grabbed Hall.

"It couldn't have happened any better," Ervin said.

"You're right," Hall said.

Well said.

When it works, our country is about nothing if not the melding of cultures, the hurdling of stereotypes, an unending search for a common thread.

Ervin and Hall have searched as we have searched.

Mostly underwater, mostly holding their breath, working mostly by feel.

Ervin, whose father, Jack, is 75% African American, is the first swimmer of that heritage to compete for the United States in the Olympics.

Hall, whose father was also an Olympic swimmer, is the last person anyone expected to see on a medal stand after battling diabetes and a marijuana suspension.

"In their own ways, both of these guys are overcoming preconceived notions," said Mike Bottom, their coach at the Phoenix Swim Club.

Ervin, 19, is quiet, reflective and spent the moments before Friday's race staring at the water and "Thinking about nothing."

Hall, 25, is loud, playful and spent the moments before the race flexing, kissing his biceps and shadow-boxing for the crowd.

"It's easier for me to tell you the ways they are alike," Bottom said.

Yet when Ervin joined Hall in Phoenix last summer, none of that mattered.

They lived in the same apartment complex, played video games together, did unconventional workouts together, and learned together.

As Hall was leaving the pool with Ervin and the gold medals Friday, he laughed.

"Just another day of practice," he said.

He later added, "In the pool, on the field, with the punching bag, we pushed ourselves to limits that we otherwise would not have reached."

They pushed themselves to a point where, during the pre-Olympic training camp in Pasadena, they became roommates.

"This wasn't a Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson sort of thing," said Hall Sr., referring to Thursday's icy third-place tie of U.S. women. "These guys really did come to like each other."

Hall liked that Ervin joked about Hall's tattooed leg or his flowing hair or 1996 boasts that didn't help him.

Ervin liked that Hall didn't ask about Ervin's heritage.

While Ervin doesn't back away from his African American roots, he doesn't want to be packaged by them either. When asked to check his ethnicity on census boxes--his mother is Caucasian--he has checked them all.

"I just try to do the best for myself," he said. "I feel like people are trying to pin me down, but for me it's never been an issue. I would think in American society, something the nature of diverse blood would not be that big of a deal."

It's not. That's the point. That was part of Friday's beauty.

Other countries' Olympic stars share common features and names.

The U.S. team is a little bit of a everything.

A backstroker from Ukraine. A Mexican American softball shortstop. An Italian American baseball manager.

And, for one splendid evening, Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall Jr.

Their first-place finish wasn't as much amazing as appropriate.

In a span so short that the two swimmers took one breath combined, it was nonetheless a chance to see how far we have come, and where we should be going.

"That's what the Olympics are about," Bottom was saying. "Athletes achieving excellence, and somebody out there saying, 'Yeah, I can do that.' "

In the end, Friday, just before they stepped on a medal stand, Gary Hall Jr. handed Anthony Ervin a flag.

Ervin looked at it like, what kind of flag is this?

It was small, wrinkled, a bit faded.

Sort of like us, sometimes.

Ervin paused, shrugged, and waved it anyway.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Pool Party

The top medal winners in swimming, with one event remaining:

INDIVIDUAL

4--Ian Thorpe, Australia 3 gold, 1 silver

4--Inge de Brujin, Netherlands 3 G, 1 S

4--Jenny Thompson, U.S. 3G, 1 B

4--Dara Torres, U.S. 2 G, 2 B

4--Pieter van den Hoogenband, Netherlands 2 G, 2 B

4--Susie O'Neill, Australia 1 G, 3 S

3--Yana Klochkova, Ukraine 2 G, 1 S

3--Michael Klim, Australia 2 G, 1 S

3--Gary Hall, Jr., U.S. 1 G, 1 S, 1 B

3--Massimiliano Rosolino, Italy 1 G, 1 S, 1 B

BY NATION

32--United States 13 gold, 8 silver, 11 bronze

17--Australia 5 gold, 8 silver, 4 bronze

8--Netherlands 5 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze

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