Janet Evans competed in her first Olympics in 1988, and at 40, she qualified for the Olympic trials over the weekend. What does her comeback bid say about age and competition?
Age is just a number
By Amanda Rykoff
What does Janet Evans' qualifying for the Olympic trials at age 40 say about age and competition? Absolutely nothing. If anything, it continues to perpetuate the adage that "age is just a number." We've reached the point where, if an athlete can perform, it really doesn't matter how old he or she is.
In 2008, then 41-year-old Dara Torres made headlines when she became the oldest swimmer to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and won three silver medals in Beijing. At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, 30 Olympians older than 40 competed in nine different sports, ranging from biathlon to curling to freestyle skiing. A 51-year-old alpine skier from Mexico, Hubertus von Hohenlohe, claimed the title of oldest Olympian at those games.
Outside of Olympic competition, there's a long history of success for athletes older than 40. Nolan Ryan had more than 1,000 of his 5,714 career strikeouts after his 40th birthday. He retired at age 46. Longtime placekicker Morten Andersen, the all-time leading scorer in NFL history, retired from the NFL in 2008 at age 48. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, 42 and seemingly ageless, continues to baffle major league hitters with his cutter. Martina Navratilova won her 59th Grand Slam title, the U.S. Open mixed doubles championship, just one month shy of her 50th birthday. Just this week, the Colorado Rockies offered veteran lefty pitcher Jamie Moyer, 49, a minor league contract.
Janet Evans is a tremendous athlete and I wish her the best of luck in her pursuit of additional Olympic success. But her story isn't anything more remarkable than just another great athlete who seeks to perform at the highest level, regardless of age.
An exception to the rule
By Kate Fagan
Elite athletes rarely stop challenging themselves. Even if they've stepped away from competitive sport, their pursuit of excellence usually exhibits itself in other ways. Some skilled athletes test themselves with a marathon, others stay in tip-top shape because it's what they know, others play board games with unnerving passion.
Rarely does an opportunity come along like the one in front of Janet Evans: 24 years after her first Olympics, her times are still on par with America's best. We all know the reality of the human body, and most comeback attempts -- especially those after years of layoff -- are doomed for failure. But every once in a while, when paired with a confluence of events (Evans' unique stroke, the mental challenge that is the 800-meter swim, her status as an icon), the old-timer with the sharp mind and steady muscles can match the younger generation's speed and exuberance.
Evans is not the rule, she's the exception.
Too many athletes return to the field because they cannot define themselves away from the game. The spotlight and attention fuel their ego for so many years. And when that light dims, no other light seems quite as bright, quite as sufficient. Once-dominant athletes are willing to mar their legacies for a long shot at glory.
But Evans' return does not seem to be about pursuing the spotlight; it seems to be about competing because she knows she can.
It doesn't happen often. And it's going to be fun to watch.
Comeback can inspire the masses
By Melissa Jacobs
Janet Evans' comeback, like Dara Torres' four years ago and many comebacks before, is nothing short of mind-blowing and inspirational. An event with the magnitude of the Olympics is surely giving Evans the guts for the comeback, and stories like Evans provide the Olympics its heartbeat.
Evans' story is particularly amazing because not only is the average Olympic swimmer somewhere in the 18-21 range, but women reach their physical peak before men. If Evans advances to the Olympics or is showered with enough attention at the trials in Omaha, we should hopefully see a trickle-down effect of extreme motivation. More women, especially those who use age as an excuse to limit physical activity, will be inspired to raise their own expectations. Dormant swimmers of a particular age will be inspired to become active. Former athletes, especially those who became mothers, will give a comeback at least a passing thought.
I'm not a swimmer, but was a skater as a kid, and every time I see a competition I want to get back on the ice. It's usually just a passing thought. Now, if that 17-year-old I'm watching was really 35 or 40 -- and competitive -- I would be inspired to take action. I'd go to a rink. I'd find out his or her workout regimen and diet. Something they are doing is defying the clock and I would want in on it.
Call it the "Evans Effect."
Finding personal inspiration for a mini-comeback
By Adena Andrews
I was 3 years old with and still wet behind the ears with baby formula when Janet Evans competed in her first Olympics in 1988. Twenty-four years later, she's still making a splash in the world of swimming.
Evans' recent Olympic trials qualification breathes life into the saying, "You're only as old as you think you are." While I'm proud of Evans and her accomplishments, I can't help but feel like a slacker when I think about what she is doing at 40 years old.
At 26, I'm nearly half Evans' age and probably couldn't beat her in a foot race, let alone in the pool. Her achievements make me look at myself and say, "What's your excuse, Adena?" Every day I wake up, moaning and groaning about an 11 a.m. three-mile run. Meanwhile, Evans wakes up for predawn workouts, takes her kids to school and finishes the day with a motivational speaking engagement. I'm still working on my first bowl of Frosted Flakes by the time Evans has conquered the day.
While at the University of Southern California, I remember seeing photos and records of Evans, the Trojans legend, as I went to the pool for numerous welcome-back socials -- not workouts. As a former swimmer, I should have drawn inspiration from her presence at my university but I ignored it instead.
Evans inspires me not to make excuses. If she can do it at 40, I can make a mini-fitness comeback at 26. I may just dust off my goggles, squeeze into my Speedo and get my feet wet again, all thanks to her.
Ignoring the odds to pursue history
By Sarah Spain
In my experience, the phrase "age is just a number" is usually an excuse for inappropriate behavior. Perhaps that's because it's most often uttered by a cougar trying to justify a black-leather mini and thigh-high boots or a 60-year-old man defending his romantic pursuit of 20-somethings. For the vast majority of us, it's best to grow old gracefully. I'm by no means suggesting we take up permanent residence on the couch the minute we lose a step or pack up and give up on life when we find our first gray hair, but there is something to be said for accepting our limitations. Skip the Botox and let the wrinkles show our age; quit beating ourselves up if our bodies perform a little slower than they used to. Sooner or later we all realize that the battle against aging is a losing one. Father Time is, after all, undefeated.
Of course, some people, like Janet Evans, don't have to play by the rules. At 40 years old, she's making a comeback, proving the undeniable power of discipline and hard work. Not only is she defying expectations for an older athlete, she's also one-upping the struggles of the average working mother. Every week, Evans has to find the time to take care of her husband and two kids and get in predawn workouts and weight-training sessions. And to add another plate to the rack, unlike Dara Torres, who sprinted back onto the scene in the 50- and 100-meter events, Evans is making her mark in the grueling 800-meter freestyle. It seems the thing that separates these women from the average aging athlete is an unquenchable thirst for competition and a need to constantly challenge themselves.
Maybe Evans' secret is her ability to ignore the obvious odds stacked against her. She admitted she had some nerves before this weekend's races, but continued to remind herself that she had been there before. While we're all marveling at her story, she's finding inspiration in 16-year-old superstar Missy Franklin, who sat down next to her before her preliminary heat Friday.
"We really didn't say anything to each other," Evans said after the race. "But I felt like, this is really interesting, this amazing phenom is sitting here next to me, and it was inspiring to me."
Years ago, Evans was that teenage phenom. Who could have imagined that 20-plus years later she'd be back in the pool making another run at history? I guess when Evans says "age is just a number," it's not an excuse for anything, it's a fact.
Evans must find personal satisfaction in comeback
By Michelle Smith
Evans' comeback says competitive edge doesn't diminish with age. Nor, in swimming, does the ability to compete at a high level, apparently.
Training regimens and technology are allowing athletes to stay in the water longer and longer. In swimming, gravity simply isn't a factor. There are plenty of athletes in other sports for whom this would just not be possible.
Evans, a mother of two who hasn't competed against elite swimmers since 1996, was a champion. She likely will not get to that level again, but being able to swim on an elite level must have its own satisfaction, or she wouldn't be putting in what must be an extraordinary amount of work to try to get back in the game.