LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. – Shortly after Janet Evans disappeared into the bathroom, her 5-year-old daughter, Sydney, knocked on the door and said, “Can I come in, Mama?”
Evans, a five-time Olympic medalist who has returned to competitive swimming at 40, was trying to provide a urine sample for a doping test while a woman sent by the United States Anti-Doping Agency watched.
“Mommy,” Sydney said, “What are you doing in there?”
How to explain to a preschooler that Mommy is swimming so fast, she has to go to the bathroom to prove she is not cheating?
Evoking her father, Paul, a veterinarian, Evans told her daughter that it was like when Grandpa took blood and other samples from dogs and cats and ran tests to make sure they were O.K.
In 1988, Evans, then 17 and weighing barely 100 pounds, vanquished the East Germans – later found to be systematically doping – on her way to three Olympic gold medals in Seoul, South Korea, and instantly became a household name. She was so accomplished by her third and final Olympics, in 1996 in Atlanta, that she was chosen to pass the Olympic torch to Muhammad Ali during the opening ceremony.
Sixteen years after those Games, and a year after returning to the pool, Evans has qualified to race in her signature events, the 400- and 800-meter freestyles, at the United States Olympic trials in June. The top two finishers in each event will earn berths to the London Games.
Evans’s return to high-level competition has captivated some while confusing others. For every person who applauds her comeback after giving birth to two children and taking a 14-year hiatus from training, many others wonder about her motives given that she is a long shot to qualify for her fourth Olympics. At the 2008 trials, it took a time of 4 minutes 3.92 seconds in the 400 and 8:25.38 in the 800 to make the team. Evans’s best times this year in those events are 4:17.27 and 8:49.05.
Evans is not the first 40-something mom to make a big splash; the sprinter Dara Torres, with her 2-year-old daughter in tow, won three silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics at 41 and will also be competing at this year’s trials. But Evans has to log considerably more mileage in the pool to be competitive in distance races, which tend to be the province of the young and lithe.
For Evans, whose passage from adolescence to adulthood played out in the public eye, this is a more personal journey. Anything less than a victory is no longer a stinging defeat. At the Olympic trials in June, Evans, like the majority of the roughly 1,500 competitors, will be racing for the pure thrill of it, with no expectations of an Olympic berth. If she makes it to the final eight, she said, she will be ecstatic.
“I know there are people who feel like if I’m going to do this, then I have to make the Olympic team; otherwise, it’s a failure,” said Evans, who is focused more on the process.
In pushing her body beyond what she imagined possible, Evans feels as if she has broken an age barrier.
“I struggled with turning 40,” Evans said. “It was a hard birthday for me. Someone said to me, ‘How do you feel now that your life is half over?’ I wasn’t ready to accept that it was all downhill from here. As a mom, you put so many things on the back burner. For me to find time to train, it was like this gift I could give myself. I think it can come out selfishly to say that, but it was something I could do for myself to feel good about being middle-aged, for lack of a better word.”
Evans, ever the competitor, was not willing to concede defeat to Father Time.
“It’s not about making the Olympics,” she said. “It’s about my body being able to do things that my mind is telling it to do.” Evans started swimming when she was 2 ½, the age her son, Jake, is now. Her mother, Barbara, used to tell a story of Evans’s swimming laps, then emerging from the water for a bottle and a diaper change. Evans set the first of her seven world records at 15, two years before her star turn in Seoul.
At the Barcelona Games four years later, she successfully defended her 800 freestyle crown and took the silver medal in the 400. She retired after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where she won no medals.
So completely did Evans shed her athlete’s skin for her new life as a motivational speaker, her husband, Billy Willson, whom she married in 2004, said, “I never thought of her as an athlete.”
Evans’s star power, like her smile, has never dimmed. She recently entered business partnerships with BMW, Arena sportswear and Metamucil, a fiber supplement that Evans admits was not on her radar when she was 17.
uring her long reign as the queen of distance swimming, Evans disarmed the public with her humility, often referring to herself as “just Janet.” Her aversion to being fussed over remains as strong as the smell of chlorine on a pool deck.
Last year, she rejected Willson’s offer to spirit her away for her 40th birthday on Aug. 28 and instead gave a party at home for Jake, who was born on the same day. Her priorities were as plain as the writing on the Thomas the Tank Engine cake: “Happy Birthday Jake and Janet.”
Evans said she had been criticized on social networking sites for training when she should be home with her children. But she has set up her schedule so her main swimming workout takes place in the morning, from 5:30 to 7:30, so she can make it home in time for breakfast. Her crazy hours are not lost on her daughter, who recently asked, “Why do you swim in the dark, Mommy?”
On Thursday, Evans left her home at 4:40 a.m. and swam 8,500 yards in less than two hours. She trains at Golden West College in Huntington Beach with Mark Schubert, who coached her at Southern California and is also making a comeback of sorts. After being fired in 2010 as the USA Swimming national team director, Schubert has returned to his roots coaching age-group swimmers and junior college athletes.
“I’m just having a blast doing this,” Schubert said. “It’s fun to be back doing this after coaching kids who are sometimes so focused on their times instead of the joy of competing and winning.”
After 1988, Evans became one of those kids, her inability to revel in her achievements obvious to her only in retrospect.
“I never really appreciated the fact I was a great athlete,” Evans said. “I just really took it for granted. I get it now. It’s fun for me to come home and tell Billy this is what I did at workout today and this is crazy that I’m able to do this.”
Before getting into the water, Evans exchanged pleasantries with a Masters swimmer whose high-school-age son, Nolan Rogers, was Evans’s lanemate and pacesetter. “The kids I’m swimming with are closer in age to Sydney than me,” Evans wryly noted.
Also pushing Evans is Megan Rankin, a high school senior who has a best time of 4:10 in the 400 freestyle.
Rankin, 17, said that before she began training with Evans, she knew her only as a name in the age-group record books. ( Evans still holds the American record in the 800 freestyle, 8:16.22, set in August 1989.)
“Sometimes if she’s beating me, I’ll be thinking, how can I not keep up with her when she’s going to go home and take care of two kids and she probably got no sleep last night?” Rankin said. “I seriously have no idea how she does it.”
After her swimming session was over, Evans had a dry land session. One of the exercises required her to put each foot on a Bosu ball – half a stability ball – and perform squats. Evans would get in more core exercise after returning home, when she straddled the jagged shell-covered rock jetty while searching for starfish with her daughter at the beach a few hundred yards from their house.
Toward the end of an hourlong walk, Evans’s daughter stumbled upon a dead crab and grew sad. “It’s the circle of life,” Evans told her as they crouched together to take a closer look. “He’ll be food for a seagull.”
Evans delights in the fact that her children’s sandbox is a beach. When Evans is not traveling to make speeches, she and the children try to take a daily walk along the shore.
On this day, Sydney and Jake kicked off their shoes as soon as they reached the sand.
“What are you going to be when you grow up?” Evans asked her daughter. “Do you want to be an Olympic swimmer?”
“No,” she replied as she took off sprinting. “An Olympic runner.”
Her brother chased after her. Evans drank in the scene and said, “I just love seeing how happy my kids are.”
Evans’s Olympic hardware – the four golds and the silver – are nowhere to be found in the 1930s three-bedroom cottage with the white picket fence. There is only one medal on display, and it is hanging in her daughter’s room: a first-place medallion on a red-white-and-blue ribbon from a Labor Day running race.
Willson’s job in technology sales allows him to work from home. He can chip in with the children when needed and behold the force of nature that is his wife.
Since Evans resumed training, he said, “What I’ve noticed is Janet’s living in the moment a little more.”
He added: “Janet’s someone – and Sydney’s the same way – who has a lot of energy. She’s happiest when she has a very full day.”
It took the unannounced visit from the drug testers – their second since she qualified for the Olympic trials last month – to get Evans to sit still. As enough of Evans’s blood was drawn to fill four vials, her son asked the medical technician, “What are you doing to Mommy’s arm?”
Turning his worried gaze to Evans, he said, “Are you O.K., Mommy?” She gave him a big smile and said: “I’m fine, Jakey. Mommy’s good.”