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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Wilson Kipsang, former marathon world-record holder, banned 4 years

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Wilson Kipsang, a former marathon world-record holder and Kenyan Olympic bronze medalist, was banned four years for whereabouts failures — not being available for drug testing — and providing false evidence in his case.

Kipsang had been provisionally banned in January in the case handled by the Athletics Integrity Unit, track and field’s doping watchdog organization. Athletes must provide doping officials with locations to be available for out-of-competition testing. Three missed tests in a 12-month span can lead to a suspension.

Kipsang, 38, received a four-year ban backdated to Jan. 10, when the provisional suspension was announced. His results since April 12, 2019, the date of his third whereabouts failure in a 12-month span, have been annulled. He is eligible to appeal. The full decision is here.

Kipsang won major marathons in New York City, London, Berlin and Tokyo between 2012 and 2017.

He lowered the world record to 2:03:23 at the 2013 Berlin Marathon, a mark that stood for one year until countryman Dennis Kimetto took it to 2:02:57 in Berlin. Another Kenyan, Eliud Kipchoge, lowered it to 2:01:39 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

Kipsang, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, last won a top-level marathon in Tokyo in 2017. He was third at the 2018 Berlin Marathon and 12th at his last marathon in London in April 2019, a result now disqualified.

Other Kenyan distance-running stars have been banned in recent years.

Rita Jeptoo had Boston and Chicago Marathon titles stripped, and Jemima Sumgong was banned after winning the Rio Olympic marathon after both tested positive for EPO. Asbel Kiprop, a 2008 Olympic 1500m champion and a three-time world champ, was banned four years after testing positive for EPO in November 2017.

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MORE: Christian Coleman suspended after disputed missed drug test

As Cullen Jones leaves Olympic-level competition, his mission is amplified

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Cullen Jones‘ impact on his sport shone again in late May, despite competition being shut down since March and swimmers at all levels kept out of pools due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jones, motivated by a message from 2012 Olympic teammate Lia Neal, created a group text chat among 10 to 20 Black swimmers sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The topic: How can we make our voices heard?

That kind of get-together was impossible during Jones’ ascent more than a decade ago. He was the first Black swimmer to hold a world record and the only Black swimmer on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

The U.S. swim team at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 could include multiple Black swimmers for both genders for the first time.

Jones, a 36-year-old Olympic gold and silver medalist (two of each color), will not be one of them. He recently announced retirement from the highest level of swimming. The last member of the epic Beijing 4x100m freestyle relay to bow out.

His legacy includes not only records and medals, but also role model status for countless young swimmers. And the face of USA Swimming’s “Make a Splash” program, barnstorming the last 12 years to help teach kids how to swim, particularly in underserved communities.

Jones is not finished working toward equality outside of the competition pool.

“George Floyd’s death is a catalyst for me,” Jones said in a June interview. “Just emboldens me to do more.”

Jones decided to speak out about discrimination, sharing stories of racism that he’s faced since becoming a swimmer after nearly drowning as a child. He filmed social media videos, joined a webinar series started by Jacob Pebley and Neal and contacted longtime sponsor Speedo.

“I always kept it very corporate,” Jones said. “I was always very neutral. You would never see me hanging out with my friends drinking, because I worked with kids. That wasn’t the image that I really wanted to put out there. When it came to my political ideals, I never really put it out there because I wanted my platform to be very straightforward, clean cut so that when companies want to align with me they know they’re aligning with a safe brand.

“But, after George Floyd’s death, I was of course enraged and upset.”

Jones and other Black swimmers helped USA Swimming recraft a June 1 statement condemning racism. On June 12, USA Swimming published a new statement, acknowledging that the sport, like society, fostered systemic racism. It detailed four short-term steps the organization would take.

Jones said “Make a Splash” was already in the process of restructuring before the pandemic. Now, he wants to be sure the tour hits the neighborhoods that most need it, such as the South Side of Chicago and Memphis.

More than 30 U.S. Olympic, Paralympic and national teamers came together to educate the swimming community on what Black Lives Matter means and to raise money for charities that support Black communities. Jones urged contributions to the Innocence Project to help exonerate the wrongfully convicted and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

“Many times we’re expected to be athlete first, and then Black second,” Jones said on a webinar with Neal and two-time Olympic 50m freestyle gold medalist Anthony Ervin titled “Swimmers for Change.” (Neal and Ervin each have one African-American parent. Ervin’s dad is three quarters African American and one quarter Native American.)

We need to keep our mouths open about things that are going on because we are the faces of what USA Swimming is in diversity,” Jones continued. “We need to make sure that these young people, as they’re coming up, they understand that they can look to us.”

Jones was born in the Bronx and moved to Irvington, N.J., as a kid. “Crips and the Bloods, gun shots, everything, that’s what I grew up around,” he said. “I leave my house, and I don’t wear certain colors because I don’t want one side to get upset.”

Jones, at “Make a Splash” stops, told families his swimming story. At age 5, he nearly drowned coming off a slide at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pa.

“It can take as little as 20 seconds for a kid to drown,” Jones, whose best event, the 50m freestyle, is a 21-second splash and dash without taking a breath, wrote in The Players’ Tribune in 2015. “I was under water for 30 seconds.”

Jones was rescued by a lifeguard and resuscitated with CPR. “The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘What’s the next ride we’re getting on?'” Jones wrote. “My mom’s first words were, ‘We’re gonna get you swim lessons.'”

By 8, Jones began a competitive swim career that lasted nearly three decades.

At 15 years old, the mom of a swimmer that he finally defeated said, “Shouldn’t he be playing basketball?”

“I was not instructed to speak out at the time,” Jones said. “I was instructed to work harder and not let anyone get in my way. That determination is what led me to the podium at the Olympic Games.”

Jones carried that memory through college at NC State, where he regularly heard boos after winning races at dual meets in his senior season in 2006.

Then a few years ago, as an Olympic champion professional, Jones was pulled over by a police officer. He was told to pop the trunk. The officer didn’t have a warrant, but Jones complied. Inside of it were some fins, paddles, a kickboard, swimsuits and copies of Jones’ autographed card that he distributes.

“The guy looks, and he goes, oh, you’re that Black swimmer that went to the Olympics. OK, well you have a good day. Took off,” Jones said. “There’s so many different ways that this still happens today.”

The night after Floyd’s death, Jones was walking Vinny, his family’s French Bulldog, around 10 p.m. outside his South Carolina house in what he describes as a nice neighborhood.

He saw a police car go past, stop at an intersection, turn around and drive up to him. The officer rolled down his window and asked Jones if everything was OK. Yes, Jones told him. The officer asked how old Vinny was (six years). They made small talk about each owning dogs. Then the officer told him once more he wanted to make sure everything was OK and drove away.

“If I wasn’t 6-foot-5, muscular and Black, I don’t know that you would have necessarily turned around. You definitely wouldn’t have asked me twice if everything was OK by me walking my dog,” Jones said in recalling the interaction. “I had to verbally disarm him by telling my vast — not so vast — knowledge of dogs so that he would feel comfortable with me, even though he’s the one with the gun. And I’m going to have to teach my child [11-month-old Ayvn] how to do that.”

Jones became visible to the nation as part of the 2008 U.S. Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay that won in Beijing, anchored by Jason Lezak‘s fastest split in history to overtake the French.

Jones earned the fourth and final spot on the team with the fastest split in the preliminary heat the night before. (That same night was one of Jones’ favorite memories: meeting the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team and LeBron James quipping, “Oh, snap, you got a brother on the team?”).

After Jones completed the third leg of the morning final, he was so exhausted that he said he “was blacking out.” Jones made what he called “an idiot move” and swam to the side of the pool to exit — traditionally done after individual races — rather than lift himself out right there at the wall.

When Lezak out-touched Alain Bernard, Jones was still on his way back to join the first two U.S. swimmers, Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale, behind the starting block. So Jones wasn’t in the immediate celebration photos and video that spread across the world.

But he was the only one to make the media rounds throughout the rest of the day because he didn’t have any more races left at the Games.

He estimated he did 13 hours of media that day. Jones returned to the Athletes’ village around 2 the next morning. He never cooled down after his swim. He was speechless after so many interviews when he entered his room, which he shared with close friend Ryan Lochte. (Lochte greeted Jones by jumping on his back, and even crying a little bit.)

Soon after, Jones received two phone calls that also changed his life. One, from a friend who told Jones, “Do you know what you just did? Tiger. Venus and Serena. That’s what you just did.”

Another, from the USA Swimming Foundation. Jones was told that drowning was the second-leading cause of accidental death in America. That 70 percent of African-American children can’t swim. That swim lessons could reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent for children ages 1-4.

He became a leader for “Make a Splash,” which started in 2007. The tour took off after his involvement following the Beijing Olympics. Four millions kids have received swim lessons through the program and its local partners.

“I don’t think there’s any question, at least up to date now, that Cullen has certainly made the biggest impact on the African-American community and the Black community in general in the sport of swimming,” said Olympic champion and NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines, who estimated he has traveled with Jones for more than 50 “Make a Splash” stops. “There are trailblazers, but nobody has made the overall impact of Cullen.

“We’ll look back on this — hopefully 20 or 30 years from now — he’ll be sort of our Jesse Owens and have had that kind of impact.”

Jones’ peers can attest.

Simone Manuel became the first Black female swimmer to win an Olympic title for the U.S. in Rio. In her famous, tearful interview after the 100m freestyle, Manuel said the gold medal was not just for her, but for those who inspired her. She named Maritza Correia, the first Black woman on a U.S. Olympic swim team in 2004, and Jones.

Jack LeVant, a rising Stanford junior and 2019 World Championships team member, remembers sitting around the TV with his family back in 2008 to watch the relay. He was 8 years old.

“Cullen, undoubtedly, has been my biggest role model in the sport,” LeVant said. “It was so awesome to see someone who looked like me doing the things that I wanted to do one day.”

Which made an interaction between LeVant and Jones in 2017 so meaningful. Jones, in what turned out to be his last major meet, missed the world championships team by .02 of a second in the 50m free. LeVant, then 17, saw his idol on the pool deck.

“I was devastated for him,” LeVant said. “As he was walking by, I was like, yo, great job, Cullen, we all love you man. He stopped and he shook my hand. He looked me right in the eye and thanked me for saying that.”

Reece Whitley, a rising junior at Cal, remembered his first time meeting Olympians at a childhood swim meet. He was not there to compete. But his mom thought it would be a great idea for Whitley to see two Olympians who were there: Brendan Hansen (a Pennsylvania breaststroker like Whitley) and Jones. A decade later, Whitley, as a high school senior, was an instructor at a “Make a Splash” stop with Missy Franklin, Gaines and Jones.

“A lot of professional swimmers, once they get to their later 30s and early 40s, and once they have a kid and start a family, they kind of leave the sport, but Cullen clearly has a mission that I stand behind, and he’s going to stick with it until everything is right,” Whitley said.

Jones’ devotion to “Make a Splash” was so ardent that Neal believes it cost him in competition.

“He was traveling so much for ‘Make A Splash’ one year leading up to trials,” she said. “He wasn’t able to reach his potential that summer of making whatever team that was because he also dedicated so much of himself to advocating for water safety.”

In a way, the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Jones’ original mission.

“This kind of puts a halt on all the kids that could have learned how to swim this summer because these public pools are being shut down,” Neal said, “but then when you have private pools still opening, that attracts more predominantly white families and kids, and they’re still on track to learn how to swim.”

Jones said that, at last check a few years ago, the amount of African-American children who couldn’t swim dropped to 64 percent, from 70 percent when he partnered with “Make a Splash” in 2008.

There were similar improvements for Latin American and white children. Jones attributed the success at least partially to swimming’s popularity — “the Michael Phelps phenomenon.”

“At the same time, you had this water safety prevention initiative that was there, screaming, i.e. me, that it’s important to get kids to learn how to swim,” he said. “So to see those numbers drop in my lifetime, I did not even expect that, let alone to see it in about eight years.”

The USA Swimming Foundation told a story from 2010, when “Make a Splash” stopped in Shreveport, La., three months after six Black teenagers drowned in the Red River.

The foundation reported that six kids total showed up for the swim clinic with Jones, all terrified.

“I got out of the pool,” Jones said after eventually getting all six into the water, according to the foundation. “I went into the bathroom, and I just started crying. I thought, ‘I get it. This is what I need to be doing.'”

MORE: Jason Lezak’s memories of Beijing Olympic relay

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