Janet Evans takes next step in comeback bid
The amateur video shot last summer shows a woman swimming all alone in a 50-meter pool. Her freestyle stroke is as distinctive as a fingerprint: stiff-armed, her head bobbing up and slightly forward before turning sideways to breathe. She looks more like she's lunging toward a life raft than racing the clock, but her biomechanics are still deadly efficient underwater. When she touches the wall after 800 meters, she has set a Masters world record for her age group.
That swimmer was quadruple Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans, who clocked 8:59.06 last June in the Janet Evans Invitational at the Janet Evans Swim Complex in Fullerton, Calif., an icon literally immersed in reminders of her past success. She did it to see where she stood after six months of hard training under her former coach Mark Schubert, and got a favorable answer: She was less than nine seconds shy of the cut for the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha in June, or just about a second per 100 meters. That seemed attainable even at age 40, after 15 years away from competition.
This weekend, against an elite international field at the Austin Grand Prix, Evans will make her first attempt to close that gap and qualify for the trials. She'll race in the two events in which she was an Olympic and world champion and an exceptionally long-standing world-record holder -- the 400 (Friday) and 800 (Sunday).
Motive is always the mystery whenever a great athlete comes out of retirement. Is it money, ego, boredom, nostalgia, a means to write a new ending or all of the above? In Evans' case, however, the question boiled down to "Why not?"
Top times in women's distance events are only incrementally faster than they were in her day. It took the brief high-tech suit era -- and the talented British swimmer Rebecca Adlington -- to break Evans' 19-year-old world record in the 800 at the 2008 Olympics. Only two swimmers per race can qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, but there's little depth in distance events in this country.
Most importantly, Evans never really lost her basic conditioning. She kept swimming through two pregnancies, and whipped herself into fantastic shape to appear on the reality show "Celebrity Circus" a few years ago. The fact that Evans could go as fast as she did in Fullerton alone in the pool -- with no one pushing her in the next lane, no crowd and nothing at stake, in such profound quiet that birdsong is audible throughout most of the video -- also speaks to the fact that she hasn't misplaced her famous focus or drive.
So don't mistake Janet Evans for a 1980s relic, time-traveling forward in a gull-winged DeLorean. In cinematic terms, she bears more resemblance to an ominous shark fin cutting through the water -- an unknown quantity to her competitors, with an aura. Evans concedes it would have been mind-bending to have a 40-year-old race against her when she was in her prime, but hopes no one begrudges her the effort. No swimmer has, at least publicly, so far.
"It's funny, my husband says that to me all the time," Evans said in a recent telephone interview. "He says, 'I'm sure people think you had your time.' But isn't that sport? I mean, whose time is when? It's sport. Competition is competition, and it really doesn't matter who it is or how old they are, it just matters that you've got to compete."
Fellow Olympic swimming champion Rowdy Gaines, an analyst for NBC-Universal Sports who will be working the meet in Austin, said he fully supports Evans and considers her plunge good for the sport in more ways than one.
"Whose business is it to tell someone to stop doing something they love?" said Gaines, 52, a gold medalist in the 100 freestyle and two relays. "If it hurts her competitors, they need to swim faster. If I could do it, I'd do it. I just know I can't."
Evans, as sunny as ever, said she loves her life out of the pool and believes she has nothing to lose. It's hard to disagree. Whatever happens, she'll still be Janet Evans, and her epitaph is unlikely to read "Didn't qualify for 2012 Olympic trials." She doesn't expect to get all the way back to her old self, but she's narrowing the gap.
Evans was the 17-year-old, 5-foot-4, 100-pound sweetheart of the 1988 Seoul Games -- one of only two U.S. swimmers, along with Matt Biondi, to win individual gold there. Upbeat and feisty, irrepressible in and out of the pool, she also was the lone woman to break the Eastern Bloc stranglehold on swimming. East Germany took 10 of 15 available gold medals; Evans captured three, in the 400 and 800 freestyles and the 400 individual medley; the other two went to Hungary and Bulgaria. The following year, the Berlin Wall fell and eventually so did the veil of secrecy around state-sanctioned doping programs on the other side of it.
She continued to dominate the 800 through 1994 and followed Olympic coach Schubert first to the University of Texas and then to USC. She grew a couple of inches and put on weight. By the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Evans was "tired of it. I was sick of it. I didn't want to do it. I was counting down the workouts."
Her personal highlight came on dry land when she was the second-to-last bearer of the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremonies, handing it off to the Parkinson's Disease-afflicted, shaky yet dignified Muhammad Ali in a scene that moved the world. Not much went her way after that. Evans finished sixth in the 800, didn't qualify for finals in the 400, and was caught live and frightened during an interview with German television in a studio overlooking Centennial Plaza when a bomb went off, killing one person and injuring dozens.
Evans left the sport and did what athletes of her stature do -- build a career as a corporate spokesperson and motivational speaker. She and husband, Bill Willson, who works in technology sales for the VCE Company, were married, appropriately, at the Long Beach Aquarium in 2004. Their daughter, Sydney, is 5 and son, Jake, is 2. She remained close to Schubert, whose daughter married one of Willson's best friends.
Comeback visions didn't clutter Evans' mind even as she watched her record times from the '80s linger in the books year after year. It's only in hindsight that you can read anything into her comments when she stood on the Speedo red carpet in Beijing next to the 19-year-old Adlington, who had finally broken Evans' standard in the 800 with a time of 8:14.10.
"I can't wait to watch her in London and in the years leading up to London," Evans told reporters, and then, turning to the woman who wasn't born yet when she conquered Seoul, said, "You have so much more potential to go so much faster [slight pause] when you have competition."
Evans wasn't referring to herself then so much as the relative stagnation in women's distance swimming, especially in her own country. There are as many reasons for this as there are experts to ask, but the consensus is it's hard to motivate younger swimmers to put in the more tedious work required for a specialty that doesn't garner a lot of glory. The NCAA system rewards sprinters with a bigger chunk of the scholarship pie, and television shows shorter races in their entirety.
But the trend is worldwide.
Evans' 800-meter world record of 8:16.22, set at the Pan-Pacific Championships in 1989, stood until 2008; over that same stretch, world records in the 50, 100 and 200 fell eight, nine and four times, respectively. Evans' time is still the American record. Her 400-meter world record of 4:03.85 set in Seoul stood until France's Laure Manadou broke it in 2006; only two other women have gone faster. American Katie Hoff, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in the 400, set the new American record of 4:02.20 earlier that year.
Kate Ziegler, a two-time world champion in the 800, told espnW last summer that she welcomes Evans' comeback.
"It's certainly something I never expected to have happen, but I think it's really cool," said Ziegler, who had a disappointing 2008 Olympics, falling short of the finals in both the 400 and 800. "Janet will bring a lot of attention to distance swimming. So often we get a little blip here and there, and then they go to a commercial."
Ziegler, who rebounded with a bronze in the 800 at the world championships last year, and 2010 national champion Chloe Sutton will be favored for the Olympic spots in that event. Ziegler's time of 8:23.36 in Shanghai was the top performance by an American woman in 2011. The 400 field, led by Hoff, is more crowded.
In the Austin meet, Evans will be seeded 51st in the 400, where her Masters time of 4:22.87 is 3.48 seconds slower than the trials qualifying standard. She lurks at 38th in the 800. But she is what tennis fans might call a "dangerous floater," capable of more than her rankings would suggest.
After Evans had her second child, she found herself at 112 pounds, back near her teenage fighting weight. About three weeks before her 39th birthday in August of 2010, she was walking on her favorite stretch of oceanfront near her home in Laguna Beach when she got a text from Schubert, then the national team director, with the times in the 800 final from the U.S. championships in nearby Irvine.
That was the last little puff of wind Evans needed to tip her over into commitment. When she phoned Schubert to tell him about her "crazy idea," he said in typical dry tones, "I've been waiting for this phone call for years." Why hadn't he suggested it before? "Because it had to be your idea," Schubert said.
"I said to Mark at the beginning, if these girls were going 8:12s and 8:10s and 8:14s on a regular basis, I would be sitting in the stands with a cup of coffee in my hands, wishing them well," Evans said. "It's shocking to me that the times haven't gotten better, but I wouldn't be out there doing it if the times had gotten better."
Evans considered where she should train, as Schubert's national team job precluded him from coaching her then. But about a month later, under circumstances neither Schubert nor USA Swimming leadership will discuss, he took a leave of absence and subsequently was fired. Schubert took a new job coaching at the Golden West Club in Huntington Beach, a short commute up the Pacific Coast Highway from Evans' home, and their paths joined again.
She logs nine swimming practices and three gym workouts a week, rising at 4:30 on most mornings to train and get home before her husband goes to work. When she swims in the afternoon, her parents babysit. On one occasion, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency showed up to test her at the pool and she had to text neighborhood friends to pick up her kids; but, for the most part, she said temporarily restructuring her life has gone smoothly.
"We've tried to put a lot of thought into her workouts so she doesn't get torn down," said Schubert, who has Evans training alongside high school boys she calls "fun to swim with, and so encouraging." Since she's already at an ideal weight, she focuses on strength and core work in the gym rather than the treadmill-running sessions that were a staple in her college days.
"I was able to do some pretty long workouts pretty early on, without any shoulder problems," she said. "The thing that really surprised both me and my coach was my recovery time. I always had such a great recovery time when I was younger, that's one of the things that allowed me to train so well. We thought I'd struggle and wouldn't recover as well as I used to between long, hard practices, but I did."
Schubert thinks the trials cuts are already within Evans' reach, and Gaines said he's confident she'll make them, too. John Dussliere, the head coach of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Swim Club who will be in Austin with a posse of younger swimmers, is among those who hope she does, and is eager to see what happens.
"She's a big-stage performer and she understands every aspect of what this meet means," he said. "This is a woman who does what she plans to do."
David Pyne, a sports physiologist for the Australian Institute of Sport who works with that country's Olympic swimming team, said research has shown that elite athletes who stay in shape can continue turning in high-level performances well into their 30s and 40s. Pyne said he is not at all surprised Evans has a shot to qualify for the Olympic trials, noting she has retained the advantages of her unorthodox stroke and stayed consistently fit in her post-competitive life.
"Now it comes back to motivation and lifestyle management," he said.
Neither of those appear to pose a problem for Evans.
Earlier this month, her husband beat her four times in a row at "Words With Friends" on their iPhones. She wouldn't speak to him all night.
Willing and able to again live the regimented, compulsive life of an athlete?
"I think I understand more that things are very fleeting, and there was a sense that if I was going to do this correctly, there was definitely a sense of urgency," Evans said. "I'm in a different mental place in my life than I was when I was swimming when I was younger. I have a family, I have stability in my life. I see doing this now as a real privilege. It's something that not a lot of married women with two kids have the opportunity to do and have the physical ability to do."
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.