Janet Evans was perfectly content to walk away from swimming after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She had her gold medals, her world records. She was burned out and ready to move on.
Evans morphed easily from athlete to spokeswoman. She got married and had two kids. By all accounts, the life she’s built over the last 15 years is full and rewarding.
Still, something kept nagging at her. She couldn’t escape the tug of the pool.
So, she’s coming back.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, the 39-year-old Evans revealed that she’s been training hard for the past six months with an eye on qualifying for next year’s Olympic trials and, if all goes according to plan, earning a spot on the U.S. team for the London Games. She’ll swim in her first meet since the Atlanta Olympics this weekend in her hometown of Fullerton, Calif.
“I have to believe it’s realistic,” Evans said. “I probably couldn’t get through the workouts if I didn’t. I’m sure there are going to be naysayers out there. That’s OK. I certainly know how I feel when I’m in the water. I know what I’m capable of. You can never count me out.”
She picked an appropriate venue for her first competition since 1996: the Janet Evans Invitational, a Masters meet held at the Janet Evans Swim Complex. Evans is planning to swim in four events, including the two that made her famous: the 400- and 800-meter freestyles (the 200 free and 200 back are also on the agenda, but more for training purposes).
“These are my first races in a long time,” Evans said. “There’s not a lot of expectations. I’m just kind of getting back in there and seeing if I remember how to do a start and all that kind of stuff.”
Comebacks are nothing new, especially in swimming. Ian Thorpe returned to the water hoping to qualify for London. Dara Torres shook off a couple of retirements, winning three silver medals in Beijing at age 41. But Evans is a little different. No one has ever tried to get back to the top after such a long layoff.
She’s ready for the challenge.
“You can’t really take away my competitive spirit,” she said. “If I do this, I want to do it well. Over the last few months, I’ve seen I can manage my life and my schedule while doing this. It has fulfilled my expectations on every level. I feel like I can be back in the game.”
She added, almost gleefully, “I don’t feel 39 when I swim, I can tell you that.”
Although Evans isn’t happy about the way her swimming career ended the first time — in Atlanta, she shockingly failed to qualify for the finals of the 400 free and finished a disappointing sixth in the 800 free — she insists that’s not a big factor in her comeback. In fact, those Games provided perhaps the greatest thrill of her athletic career: passing off the torch to Muhammad Ali at opening ceremonies.
This is more about a woman, a wife, a mother who feels her priorities are in order, who feels she’s can handle more and bring her family along for the ride. She’s not doing it to prove anything to anyone other than herself.
“There’s always been something I felt in the back of my head,” Evans said. “Well, I finally got to a place in my life where I really feel physically fit, I feel in shape. I also feel like I have this stability in my life. There’s a big difference between a 24-year-old who’s never done anything but swam and a woman who feels stability in her life. I have an awesome family, a great husband. I just felt like it was the right time to get back in pool.”
Evans has reunited with her old coach, Mark Schubert, who had been running the U.S. national team until he was dumped last summer for reasons that have never been fully explained.
“It’s like we got the band back together,” Evans quipped.
For Schubert, the chance to get back on deck with one of his most famous swimmers has been a godsend, even if it does mean arriving at the pool before dawn so Evans can get in her morning training and return home about the time her two children — 4½-year-old Sydney and not-yet-2-year-old Jake — are waking up. Evans also trains three times a week in the afternoon, which is possible because there are grandparents who live close by and gladly chip in with childcare duties.
“It’s just been a blast for me,” Schubert said. “This is a project that I’ve never tackled before, but her attitude makes it so much fun.”
Evans was a whirling dervish of a swimmer who grew up before our eyes at three Olympics. At age 17, she took on the powerful — and, as we would learn, heavily doped — East Germans and came away with three gold medals from Seoul.
She was America’s sweetheart outside the pool, the fresh-faced girl next door. But once she dove in, her arms flailed with a power and intensity that belied her 5-foot-6 body, as if she was mad at the water for trying to hold her back. She was perpetual motion, never seeming to tire in races that went on for up to a mile.
Evans didn’t just take down the East Germans. She beat up the record book. Her gold-medal time in the 400 free stood for nearly 18 years. A year later, she set a mark in the 800 free that held up for 19 years. She also held the top time in the 1,500 free (a non-Olympic event for women) for nearly two decades.
“She’s a different human being. She’s just not normal,” Schubert said. “Physiologically, she’s special. Her power-to-weight ratio, she’s special. But it’s her mentality more than anything else. She really knows how to compete.”
Evans might just be in the best shape of her life. In Atlanta, she weighed about 130 pounds. These days, she checks in at 112. Of course, there’s nothing she can do about that date on the birth certificate. She’ll turn 40 in August, and the body tends to break down a lot easier at this age than it does in the 20s.
So far, so good.
There have been none of those nagging little injuries — though Evans always knocks on wood when she mentions this — and she’s ready to start taking on some races. She’ll swim at least two or three Masters meets to assess where she is, and there’s a chance she’ll enter the U.S. national championships in August. By early next year, she hopes to be back competing on the Grand Prix circuit, putting up times that show she’ll be a serious contender at the Olympic trials.
Evans is still involved in projects outside the pool, such as Lyfe (Love Your Food Everyday) Kitchen, a new restaurant chain opening this summer that promises healthy choices in a fast-food-type setting. Next Tuesday, she’ll join fellow Olympian Rowdy Gaines for an event billed as the “World’s Largest Swimming Lesson,” hoping to earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records while promoting safety at the pool.
If the comeback doesn’t work out, that’s OK.
“Does it change my medals and world records?” Evans asked, not needing an answer. “I could quit tomorrow, never get in the water again, and I’d be really secure with what I’ve done. They can say what they want. I think it takes a lot of courage to do this. Going into this, I know there’s always going to be people who doubt what you do. Always.”
The way she remembers it, no one thought she could beat the East Germans, either.
“That’s one of the key messages of being an Olympian,” Evans said. “There’s always going to be people who say you can’t do things. The people who don’t listen to that are the ones that overcome. Those are the people who succeed.”
National Writer Paul Newberry can be reached at http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963