Janet Evans' golden moment came out of the pool

Chicago Tribune

OMAHA -- We met for the first time for an interview at her home in California before the 1988 Olympics.  Janet Evans was a bubbly 16-year old, and I was a month from becoming a father, a year older then than she is now.

You keep your distance in this business, fearful of getting too close to a subject lest the day come when there is going to be a negative story, and you can’t find the emotional detachment to write it properly.  Over time, that gap between Janet and me shrank, maybe because from the day my son was born, Janet’s father, Paul, always would ask how he was doing.  And when Janet got a little older, so would she.

I watched her grow up, watched her win four Olympic gold medals, watched her race in three Olympics, watched her pass the torch to Muhammad Ali (more on that later) before he lit the cauldron at the Atlanta Games, watched her retire once after those Olympics 16 years ago, watched her retire again Saturday morning, as a 40-year-old wife and mother of a five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son.

There never was a negative story.  Our professional relationship became a friendship after her first retirement.  So I kept from writing about her comeback until now.

She was about to be the greatest female distance swimmer in history when we first met, and she still has that distinction now.  Twenty-three years ago, Evans swam 800 meters in 8 minutes, 16.22 seconds.  That was the world record until 2008 and still was the U.S. record when Evans swam another 800 Saturday morning in the preliminaries of the 2012 U.S, Olympic trials.

Distance swimmer Ashley Adams, who is 20, thought about Evans’ seemingly indelible record time and said, “It’s so crazy.  And it’s crazy that she can take time off and come back and still get a trials’ cut (qualifying time.)  That is such an amazing athlete.”

Crazy.  The generation gap between the two would be bridged by that word.

Adams and Evans were in the same 10-swimmer heat.  Adams finished third, in 8:48.73.  Evans was eighth, in 9:01.59, nearly 15 seconds slower than her qualifying time and 53rd of 65 finishers, the fastest of whom clocked 8:27.61.

“How was it so easy then?’’ Evans said of her U.S. record.  “I have no idea how I could go an 8:16.  I kind of forget my American record still stands in this event.  It’s crazy.”

So, it seemed, was her decision about a year ago to return to competitive swimming.  Unlike sprinter Dara Torres, the sport’s other woman of a certain age, Evans would be in races that require an enormous training load, sometimes five miles of swimming a day.

When she struggled through an 800 at a meet a year ago, her coach, Mark Schubert, said, “You can quit now.”  She realized a few months ago that her endurance base never came back (“that’s just a result of age”), and there was little chance she could drop the 30 or 40 seconds needed to have a chance at making the Olympic team.  She would swim markedly slower in both races at the trials than she had earlier this year.

She kept going for a number of reasons – doing something for herself, letting her children see her as a swimmer, inspiring others to try something out of their comfort zone.

“It didn’t take that much courage when I was a kid because I was a fast swimmer,” she said.

She found out that her son, Jake, had slept in grandma Barbara Evans’ lap during his mother’s first race, the 400 meters last Tuesday, when she finished 80th overall.  Her daughter, Sydney, asked if she had won that race, and her mother said no, and Sydney replied, “It’s OK.  I still love you.”

Back to Ali.  Two nights before the 1996 opening ceremony, Janet and I had dinner at an Atlanta restaurant.  She never let on that after dinner, near midnight, she would be rehearsing the torch handoff to Ali, whose role was a secret kept so well that it became an indelible moment in the life of everyone in the stadium.

“He appeared out of the night, out of the past he shared with both the event and the region,” I wrote of the moment.  “When the light caught his dark face, caught it full, the reflection was brighter than the flame Janet Evans handed to him.  It was a reflection of the possibilities the Olympics promise and rarely deliver, the possibilities for men and women to be judged by who they are and not how they look.”

Evans told me later how nervous she was, how she had been instructed to help Ali, the boxer known as “The Greatest,” if the shakes from his Parkinson’s disease made it impossible for him to complete the lighting ceremony on his own.  She stood a few feet away, grateful there was no need to step in, grateful that the only thing she would share was seeing the excitement in Ali’s eyes.  

Saturday morning, after Evans finished the last press conference she will give as a competitor, I asked her if the moment with Ali would forever be the highlight of her sports career.

“Of course,” Evans said, without a second’s hesitation.  “You know I will give up every medal for that again.”

I remember once telling her dad that in the years I had covered Janet, I felt like I was watching my own daughter grow up.  As I watched that last swim, heard the crowd cheer her before and after the race, I could not help but feel the pride Paul Evans, 76, was feeling in the stands.  It was the pride of watching a child become a great champion and an adult who understood the greatest experiences of a life, the really indelible things, often involve standing aside.

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