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Evans Bows Out: Her Legend Never Dies

Jun 30, 2012  - Craig Lord

Legends never die. Not even after a 9:01.59 800m free witnessed by a record 14,033 folk who paid a ticket to see Janet Evans swim the last race of her career at 2012 US Olympic Trials in Omaha.

Evans, 40, finished 8th out of 10 in her heat and 53rd out of 65 in prelims this morning. Once the queen of distance freestyle swimming and forever a legend of her sport as 1988 Olympic champion windmilling her way to 400m and 800m free and 400IM gold ahead of East German muscle and the first woman ever to retain the 800m crown four years on, Evans is done.

She has submitted retirement papers, not because she will quit the pool - she intends to swim regularly for the rest of her life - but because the challenge is done and she no longer wants anti-doping testers waking the family up in the small hours back home in California.

"I'm proud that I had the courage to try," said a delightful Evans. "It's easy to sit at home or be up in the stands saying 'i could do that'. I could have slept in every day and taken my kids to school and done the usual things." 

Instead she leapt out of her comfort zone and took the plunge once more back in 2010, knowing that her chances of getting back to the 8:20 kind of times she would need for a place at the London 2012 Olympic Games were not about to send hordes rushing to place their bets. Indeed, she raced at trials this week because the cut times were soft, 1800 plus swimmers in the mix to select a team of 52, with about 200 or so in with a chance.

If the crowd appreciated her being there this morning, greeting her with a huge roar, then so too did fellow legend John Naber. He had a question for her, one which he prefaced with "Janet, thank you from all of us old geezers." Had she heard the crowd and did it mean anything to her? She had and clearly it did. "I think people who know about swimming understand what it takes," she said.

There to watch the holder of what remains the American record and world textile best all these years on - 23 in fact - were her mum (the first person she spoke too after her race today) and dad, who looked after their grandchildren, 5 and 2, up in the stands. The 2-year-old slept through Evan's last 400m earlier in the week, while the 5-year-old called to ask "did you win mommy?" "No," said mom. "It's okay, I still love you."

No better reply could there have been from anyone in this world. It would have been so easy for Evans not to bother, not to get up, not to go along for an early morning session with 

John Mykkanen, whose daughter Courtney raced in the 200m backstroke this morning, or later on 1976 Olympic 400m and 1500m champion Brian Goddell down at the pool with coach Mark Schubert. But she stuck at it even after a 9min plus swim in Mission Viejo last year that caused Schubert to say "you could quit now".

Said Evans: "It's about trying something and being proud of what you've done." Asked about her journey, Evans delivered a blast of honesty from the top table: "It was never a journey back then. It was all I knew. I was a kid. It didn't take courage. I swam fast. It was easy. Journeys are more for people of our age. There's a certain depth to it doing something again at this age."

She was also clear when it came to framing the past. She refused to see only with the eyes of today. Neither the passing of time, the development of swimming nor the presence of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte could take away the fact that swimming had always been a thrill. To a question that hinted that swimming was more thrilling these days, Evans recalled: "Swimming was exciting back then too. I t was the 1984 Games - with Rowdy [Gaines] and Tracy Caulkins - that inspired me. We always had great names on the team."

Her's is one of the greatest. She look back fondly on success but she valued too "a lot of friendships that had been reinforced and formed" along the way. She would swim for life and health. "It never leaves your soul. It's a part of who I am, being in the water."

A part of USA Swimming culture too to be appreciative of achievement and never forget to celebrate it and the way in which it can inspire those who follow. As Evans waved goodbye to the media, she was beckoned, without fuss or ceremony, to the side by the man who replaced Schubert as National Team Director, Frank Busch, and his assistant Lindsay Mintenko (nee Benko). 

"Thankyou." It was all they needed to say.

A last image of Janet Evans, the swimmer, before she retired @swimnewscom

Born on August 28, 1971, Janet Evans swam beyond her era: her world records over 400m and 1,500m from 1988 were finally surpassed in 2006 and 2007 respectively, while the 800m standard fell at Beijing 2008.

Capable of swimming all four strokes competently by the time she was five, Evans was teased because of her lack of height and weight as a junior. The little girl from El Dorado High School in the town of her birth, Placentia, California, answered by channelling her competitive nature into training and a stroke rate second to none: she was described as swimming like a “windmill in a hurricane”. 

"My straight-arm recovery was natural. I really couldn't swim it any other way. I think I developed it when I was a kid, and I wanted to get down the pool the fastest. I figured the fastest way to get to the other end was to turn my arms over as fast as I could," said Evans.

At Fullerton Aquatic Swim Team she was a coaching dream-come-true for Bud McAllister: she trained hard, never complained and focused on improving. At 13 she won her first national junior title, over 1,500m freestyle, and in 1987 she claimed the first of 45 national senior crowns.

That same year, Evans set the first two of seven world records on freestyle, over 800m and 1,500m, but learned to set her standard high when the 8:22.44 in which she confined Australian Tracey Wickham’s 1978 world record to history was replaced by an 8:19.53 by Anke Moehring (GDR) less than a month later. In December, Evans took out another Wickham milestone with a 4:05.45 world record over 400m and the following March, 1988, she hit back over 800m with an 8:17.12. 

Evans arrived in Seoul in September that year as a favourite to win the Olympic distance freestyle crowns but started her campaign with a victory over 400m medley, a warning for the storm to come. Her 4:03.85 victory over 400m caused jaws to drop: Evans led from start to finish but at 300m, Heike Friedrich (GDR), who had won all 13 international finals she had raced in since 1985, was still in contention and known for her finishing strength. But Evans, more than 20kg lighter than her rival, proceeded to race faster over the homecoming 200m than she had over the first 200m: 2:02.14 and 2:01.71. 

No woman has ever swum the last 200m of a 400m race faster, while only one woman, Otylia Jedrzejczak (POL) has ever raced faster than Evans’ last 100m of 1:00.45: the Pole clocked 59.70 chasing Olympic champion Laure Manaudou (FRA) to win the silver medal at the 2007 World Championships. It was Manaudou, at Tours on May 12, 2006, who finally got passed Evans on the clock over 400m, in 4:03.03, reducing that again to 4:02.16 at Budapest in 2006. 

Evans claimed her third gold medal of the 1988 Games in the 800m, racing in between East German women who, on the starting blocks, made Evans look like a visitor from the junior pool: the American’s 1m 66 height and 46kg compared to 1.87 and 82kg for Astrid Strauss and 1.81 and 69kg for Moerhing. In the water, Evans was the giant. 

The following year, she set her final two world records, in March becoming the first woman inside 16 minutes over 1,500m, with 15:52.10, and in August establishing an 8:16.22 world record which remained in place until Rebecca Adlington claimed Olympic gold in Beijing in 8:14.10. Evan's time remains the best ever by a swimmer in a  textile suit. Her 1,500m world mark was finally broken by fellow American Kate Ziegler in June 2007, in 15:42.54. 

Coached by Richard Quick and Mark Schubert in the 1990s, Evans was the first woman to stay at the top of the podium in any event for two back-to-back Olympic Games and World Championships: she was 800m champion in Seoul 1988, Perth 1991, Barcelona 1992 and Rome 1994, the last two victories making her the first woman ever to retain the Olympic and World crowns in that event.

Popular among other athletes, Evans was elected to the first FINA Athletes Commission in 1992 and in 1996 at her swansong Olympic Games was chosen as stadium torchbearer with Mohammed Ali. She remains a public speaker and organiser of swim clinics in the United States.