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Finish of Evans' Career Has Her a Little Numb

July 26, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — Janet Evans is padding barefoot across a pile of soggy wood chips, with a Band-Aid around three of her toes. Janet has just swum a distant sixth in the last Olympic race of her life, and on television afterward, Sally Field couldn't have said it better: "Everyone's loved me!" Evans gushed. "And it's been so great to feel that love."

Now she has ducked out back, by a pool where Olympians practice. The cement deck is damp from a rainy day in Georgia. There is no lawn, only shards of wood in lieu of grass. Janet, still dripping wet in a royal blue USA swimsuit, steps gingerly on the broken fourth toe of her right foot.

"They gave me eight shots of Novocain before I swam!" she calls up to a girlfriend, Kathy Cravens, who is bent over a second-story railing. "I can't feel a thing!"

Oh, yes, she could.

Pain, pleasure, joy, sadness, satisfaction . . . Evans was an absolute jumble of feelings Thursday, melancholy over the end of 10 years as a decorated veteran of women's swimming, touched by the outpouring of affection she has received here, puzzled by a few who miscast her as a poor sport, but mainly as aglow as she was the night she ran that Statue of Liberty play, carrying America's torch.

Janet alternately cracked up and choked up, all day long. It began when her coach, from USC days and beyond, Mark Schubert, caught her by surprise before the farewell 800-meter freestyle race, by saying: "Don't forget, we still love you." He had seen Evans' happy face in Seoul and her sad face in Barcelona, and felt it necessary to remind Janet that, whatever happened here at Atlanta, the world was hers.

With the race behind her, Janet got giddy.

She made jokes at her own expense, about being old and retired at 24, about needing a real job, about being an "ex-swimmer," except for maybe doing laps for exercise or soaking in a Jacuzzi while the younger generation did the work. Janet Evans might jog her way through the L.A. Marathon sometime soon and might have been a pretty fair athlete in another sport, but as Schubert said, "When you spend every waking moment in the water since you were 4 years old, you don't have a whole lot of time to develop many other athletic skills."

Now, she has the time. Home to a hero's welcome in her hometown of Placentia, then another near her current digs in Pasadena, and after that, Evans can do as she pleases. Sleep late, kick back, eat junk . . . well, Janet has never dined exactly on lettuce and carrots, sitting down between workouts to pancakes, fried eggs and hash brown potatoes, then doing what few swimmers do after eating: swimming for three more hours.

Maybe she'll work 9 to 5, public relations, broadcasting, law school, all these fields intrigue her.

But first, paste a scrapbook or two.

"Ten years as a distance swimmer, I'm kind of amazed by it myself," Evans said, misty from more than the chlorine in her eyes. "I have no complaints and I'm leaving with a smile. I'll never forget the way people called out to me: 'Janet! Don't ever forget what you've done!' Or even just: 'We love you, Janet!' I wouldn't have missed this for the world."

Sixth place, well, that's the way it goes. Brooke Bennett, a girl Janet used to help do her homework, still just a punk of 16, came on gangbusters to smoke Janet by more than 11 seconds. Janet was nearly 23 seconds slower than her own world record. Hmmm, Brooke Bennett. "Rainy Night in Georgia," wasn't that sung by Brook Benton? No wonder it poured here all day.

There wasn't much warmth in the pool.

Evans and Bennett have never been like sisters. So, after Janet bobbed her way across one red rope after another, from Lane 7 over to Lane 4, to congratulate the winner--remember, Evans came to her--it caught the doyenne of the pool off-guard when someone later suggested that the embrace seemed rather cool.

"Gosh," Janet said, "I thought going over there was a nice thing to do."

That wasn't the only question to perplex Evans during the past few days. Her mere mention that peers were curious about Irish swimmer Michelle Smith's amazing improvement had brought Evans considerable grief, a Washington Post writer, for one, wise-guying: "Perhaps Janet will identify everybody else who beat her whom she thinks is on drugs, so they can be tracked down too."

Janet shrugged it off.

Emerging from the Georgia Tech auditorium, she headed directly for Schubert and his wife, Joke, pronounced "Yo-ka," who is an assistant U.S. team manager. During their three-way hug, Evans said: "You know, you guys, I'm disappointed that I lost, but it's just another race, and I've had good ones and I've had bad ones. Sorry I had to end on a bad one."

The busted toe was more a psychological distraction than anything, Schubert said. Amusingly, while the swimmer was loudly acknowledging all the Novocain injected into her, the coach was wryly admitting only, "I've heard that rumor, yes," maybe forgetting that Janet's a civilian now and can speak as freely as she likes.

Jeff Rouse, a backstroke specialist from the U.S. men's team, kept Evans giggly, playing "this little piggy," tugging on her pinky toe while trying to remember which one went to market.

Sixth place? No medals? Evans didn't mind.

She actually called this her favorite Olympics.

"I felt the highs and the lows," she said. "It's been a heck of a ride."

A few years ago, in Barcelona, at a music club with many other athletes, Janet Evans danced the night away.

Shouting up to her friend, here in Atlanta, about not being able to feel a thing, Janet waved so long, then called over her shoulder: "Wait'll that Novocain wears off, though!"

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