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By Susan Valot
Seven world records, five Olympic medals, one awesome swimming career… but swimmer Janet Evans hopes it doesn’t stop there. Sixteen years after retirement from swimming, she’s eying a comeback.
It’s 1988. The Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea. Swimmers churn through the water down the lanes. Seventeen-year-old Janet Evans, with her trademark windmill style, rips through the water. At home, eyes are glued to the call of the women’s 400-meter freestyle on NBC.
Olympic historian David Wallechinsky was there.
"We were still in the middle of the Cold War," he said. "There hadn’t been the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc, so there was still a sense of us versus them. Janet Evans was part of that story because she was a great American swimmer who was going up against the East German favorites. The East Germans had been dominating everything in women’s swimming."
But that didn’t deter tiny Janet Evans from beating them.
"I think as a 17 year old, the pressure was easier because I didn’t think too much about it, because it wasn’t in my head," she said. "I was just like, 'Well, I’m a good swimmer. I have no expectations. I’m not supposed to beat the East Germans. Yeah, I’m GOOD. I’m an Olympian, but I’m just going to get out here and have some fun.' And that’s when I swam my best."
Evans set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle that stood for 18 years. She won four gold medals and a silver in the 1988 and 1992 games. Not bad for a California kid who didn’t start out swimming with the Olympics in mind.
"I learned how to swim when I was about 15 months old," she said, "because my mother didn’t know how to swim – STILL doesn’t know how to swim – so she put my two brothers and I into swim lessons very early because we had a pool in our backyard and when my dad was at work, she didn’t know what to do with us if we fell in the pool."
Evans says she didn’t even think about the Olympics when she was growing up.
"The ’84 Olympics came to Los Angeles when I was 12 and we went to the opening ceremonies. And I decided then and there that I wanted to go to the Olympics. I wanted to be an Olympian. And I put my heart and soul into it and improved rapidly and made the ’88 Olympic team."
Evans says she chose swimming because it was fun — and she could beat her brothers at it. Her long-time coach Mark Schubert remembers seeing Evans swim in those early days.
"First time I saw her swim, she was 12 years old," Schubert said. "It was after the 1984 Olympics. And she was swimming in the Junior Nationals. She was the smallest swimmer in the pool and she was in the outside lane and she won the 1500 freestyle. I knew that she was really going to be something special.
Evans’ swimming career spanned three Summer Olympic Games. She retired from swimming at the age of 24 after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
"Then I wanted to go see the world," said Evans. "I wanted to live in different cities. I wanted to get married and have a family. And I did all that. And a couple summers ago, I was thinking, 'You know, I have two great kids. They’re both stable. They’re sleeping through the night. I have a great husband. Let me see what I can do. Let me see if I can get back in shape. Let me do something for myself.'"
Sixteen years after her retirement, Evans is back in the pool.
Evans reunited with coach Mark Schubert to try to make a comeback at the age of 40. She trains with his team at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California.
Schubert shouts drills as assistant coach Joey Gracia watches Evans and the others.
"She has a great attitude," Gracia said. "She’s really happy to be here. She’s interactive with all the kids, interactive with all the coaches. She’s not a superstar. She loves having people around her that push her. She loves it. She loves people that can beat her. That way, she can try and beat them on other days."
"In the pool, I think it’s really fun to race her," said Megan Rankin, Evans' training partner and fellow Olympic hopeful. Rankin is only 17 years old.
"It’s very motivating," Rankin continued, "because I know she’s married with two kids, and she comes to practice every day and it’s just in the back of my head. I’m always thinking, 'It’s incredible that she’s back in the pool doing these kind of things.' So it motivates me to go faster."
Evans trains in the pool about four hours each day, six days a week. Swim coach Dia Rianda has watched her improve.
"She’s inspired a lot of young people on this team and people on this team, but I think bigger than that, she’s inspired a lot of women and a lot of people who have finished with the sport to come back to the sport and use it as a form of exercise and a form of joy and get back into competing," Rianda said.
David Wallechinsky says comebacks aren’t new. But he says it’s difficult for older swimmers.
"What I think inspired some swimmers in 2012 is Dara Torres, who came back at 41 and won medals," Wallechinsky said. "I mean, she was amazing, Dara Torres. But what makes it different with Dara Torres is that she was a sprinter. She’s going for in individual events, 50 meters. And to go for 400 meters, 800 meters, that’s a whole other story."
Evans has already qualified for the 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle at this year’s Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. But she’s philosophical about her chances to make the Olympic squad.
"For me, it’s less about making the team and more about a personal journey," Evans said. "You know, I had a woman say to me the other day, 'Aren’t your goals really lofty?' And I just thought, 'Gosh, if we don’t have lofty goals, what’s the point of setting goals?' And for me, just to get out here at 40 and do this and feel like I’m accomplishing something, inspiring others along the way. You know, it’s really not about making the Olympic team for me – although I’d love to make the Olympic team and I think I can drop time between now and our trials in June – but for me it’s more about doing it for myself because at the end of the day, no one can take away the things that I've accomplished in this sport."
The U.S. Swimming Olympic Trials start June 25.
This segment aired on March 3, 2012.
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