Stacey Ervin
Courtesy Stacey Ervin Jr.

Riding The Wave: How Stacey Ervin went from gymnastics to WWE, and why he left

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About a year after his WWE tryout, and about eight months after signing with the organization, former U.S. national team gymnast Stacey Ervin Jr. hit a milestone.

“I was told that I was the fastest ever to go from no wrestling experience to a TV match,” he said.

Ervin made his WWE Network debut as part of an NXT tag team with Humberto Carrillo against the Street Profits on Feb. 13. It would be his first and last TV match. A belly-to-back suplex gone wrong left Ervin landing on the back of his head and viewers wondering if he broke his neck or suffered a concussion.

“That is not true, actually,” said Ervin, who continued in the match, even nailing a tsunami-sault, and later shared video on social media with a woozy face emoji. “I didn’t suffer a concussion, but I did have a scary spill.”

That served as a catalyst for Ervin’s decision a month later to walk away from a promising career at age 25. His goal — headlining WrestleMania — unmet.

“I don’t walk away from the company with any negative feeling,” Ervin stressed. “Everyone that’s with me has been very supportive and looking out for my best interests.”

Ervin was 7 or 8 years old when his mom, Stephanie Hayes, suggested gymnastics after he ran across a balance beam at a rec center.

“Kind of freaked out the instructor,” Ervin said on the GymCastic podcast in 2013. “They pointed us to a different facility, which was Michigan Academy of Gymnastics.”

Ervin proved a natural. He was profiled by the Detroit News at age 12 and a U.S. junior champion on vault at 16. He matriculated at the University of Michigan, where he would be part of an NCAA champion team and place third on floor exercise.

Before his freshman season, Ervin’s mom died of T-Cell lymphoma.

“I struggled dealing with grief over her death,” he told the University of Michigan Depression Center. “Not to mention living in a new environment with increased athletic and academic demands. I consistently found myself alone, spiraling downward.”

The Michigan team helped. Gymnasts and coaches attended his mom’s memorial service, months before Ervin would don the maize and blue in competition for the first time.

The most meaningful of Ervin’s seven tattoos is his first one — a cross with a ribbon wrapped around it topped with “Mom” on the left side of his ribcage. His second tattoo, on his right chest, was his Michigan team’s mantra — “The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack” — from Rudyard Kipling‘s “The Law of the Jungle.”

“It also resonated with me as an individual,” Ervin said. “I like to think of myself as a leader, and I don’t want to be the one to hold any community back that I’m a part of.”

Ervin graduated from Michigan in 2015 and began working for Oracle as a customer success manager in Austin, Texas. He soon became discontented with spending eight hours a day at a desk.

Through a friend, Ervin found a path back to gymnastics in early 2017. He interviewed with Nellie Biles and became a coach (and then a director) at the Biles’ gym, World Champions Centre at Spring, Texas. By August of that year, he and Nellie’s daughter, Simone, were an Instagram official couple. They had met at the 2013 U.S. Championships, but didn’t know each other extremely well until he moved to Texas.

But Ervin still sought an energetic, competitive outlet. He took part in an American Ninja Warrior qualifier. He also brought up another idea to his girlfriend. What about the WWE?

“Before really knowing what it was or anything, I automatically said no,” Biles said. “[Later] I was like, actually, that would be pretty cool. I would always watch like ‘Total Divas’ and that all the time. So I was kind of a little bit familiar with it, but not the guys’ side, I guess.

“I thought they, like, beat each other up. They do, but it’s in kind of a safer way. It’s not like UFC. You’re not trying to kill them. This is to entertain.”

Biles kept her mind open and, apparently, her eyes peeled. She woke from an airplane nap to see wrestling on the TV in the seat next to her. She saw a WWE billboard while driving. She had a dream about it.

Then in September 2017, Biles was in New York City for a benefit for The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis. So was Paul Levesque, better known as WWE superstar turned executive Triple H, and his wife, Stephanie McMahon. Biles texted Ervin and asked if she should approach the bulging man 20 inches taller and double her weight. Ervin said no.

“I’m like, it’s too late, Stacey, I’m already talking to them,” she said. “Then I started showing him pictures of Stacey. He said, well we have these open tryouts, here’s a card.”

Ervin tried out in February 2018. He described it as “an overall test of physicality and personality.” Every one of the nearly 40 prospects had to give a minute-long monologue in front of the group, plus coaches and executives.

“I let everyone know that I’m here on purpose,” he said. “I’m here to do this because it’s on cue with who I am and that I’m going to be the next great WWE superstar.

“I had never really gotten away from staying in shape from gymnastics. I think they were rather impressed with what I was able to.”

Ervin believed that when he started with the WWE’s developmental NXT promotion last July, he was the first male gymnast to do so. WWE spokespersons declined interview requests for this story.

He thought decision-makers liked not only his athleticism, but also the charisma that dripped from the curls he began growing out the day before his 23rd birthday.

“The technical aspects of working a match and wrestling, those presented the biggest challenges to me,” the psychology graduate said, comparing it to coding computer software.

For both Ervin and Biles, nerves came with watching the other compete.

“I don’t know,” she said last fall. “It still looks like they’re beating each other up.”

Then came the night before Valentine’s Day, when Ervin landed on the back of his head in his TV debut. He had already been questioning the career. Other opportunities sprung in health and fitness.

“I made a 17-year gymnastics career and pretty successfully walked away with no injuries that would impair me to function at any other level,” Ervin said while noting he knew what he was signing up for with WWE. “It occurred to me that the risk versus reward through my path at WWE just wasn’t worth it to me personally. I felt there were other ways for me to achieve my personal vision without risking life and limb.”

Just before Ervin decided he wanted to walk away, he tuned into John Oliver‘s “Last Week Tonight” segment on the WWE and how it takes care of its wrestlers.

“When I watched that, I wasn’t blown away,” Ervin said. “This is exactly what I’m going through.” Ervin went public with his decision last week via Instagram. His amicable release from WWE is expected to become official later this week. He remains a WWE fan.

“Even more so now because I’m seeing friends and people that I know who are super passionate about it,” he said. “I still have my wrestling trunks and my attire. I’ll probably be hanging onto that.”

Ervin transitioned his persona — “The Wave” — into a health and fitness venture, starting from the ground up with help from friends. His Instagram stories — broadcast to 122,000 followers — are a daily diary of diet and wellness. He launched a website and a $25 workout guide last month.

Ervin says his “The Wave” philosophy is the reason why he chased the WWE dream and the reason why he ultimately gave it up.

“Be one with the path, so to speak,” he said. “Ride your path. Ride your intentions. Ride your intuition. You know, ride the wave.”

MORE: Simone Biles talks anxiety medicine, therapy in up-and-down year

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Tommy Ford ends U.S. men’s World Cup drought at Beaver Creek

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Tommy Ford earned his first World Cup win at age 30 and ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.

Ford won the giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Sunday, the last North American race on tour this season. He prevailed by eight tenths of a second combining times over two runs.

“It doesn’t beat doing it here. I’ve been working hard,” Ford, in his 86th World Cup start dating to 2009, said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “No secret, just kept it simple and really trusted what I was doing.”

Norwegians Henrik Kristoffersen and Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen were second and third. American Ted Ligety, fourth after the opening run, finished 11th.

Full results are here.

Ford became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup since Travis Ganong took a downhill on Jan. 27, 2017. He also became the first U.S. male podium finisher since Ligety in January 2018. Both were the longest droughts for the program since the late 1990s.

Ford, a 2010 and 2018 Olympian who missed the 2014 Olympics due to a broken femur, had been working toward this moment.

He finished a World Cup career-high fourth at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. Last season, the Oregon native and former Dartmouth student had a pair of fifths.

The men’s World Cup moves to Val d’Isere, France, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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