Four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans goes through a training session… (Chris Carlson / Associated…)
This wasn't the Last Waltz … how about the Last Splash?
One of the more unexpected, and interesting, sports comebacks kicked off Saturday on a drizzly morning in Fullerton in front of a scattered group of spectators with freight trains rumbling by not far away, occasionally puncturing the quiet.
Swimming icon Janet Evans, at 39 competing for the first time in 15 years, took out two masters age-group world records in about 3 1/2 hours, winning two distance events and exceeding her exceedingly modest goals at the Janet Evans Invitational at a swim complex named after Evans.
She won the 400-meter freestyle in 4 minutes 23.82 seconds and followed that up by going 8:59.06 in the 800 freestyle, a solo effort after two competitors, ages 89 and 92, pulled out.
That made sense. After all, it always seemed as though Evans was racing only the clock in her glory days, and now she was doing it as a mother of two young children.
She wanted to break 4:30 in the 400 and go under nine minutes in the 800. Those goals — set by Evans and her coach, Mark Schubert — were surpassed even though the two-day meet was compressed into one day.
Plus, there were two blue ribbons to give to her daughter.
"I was a little jittery — it's been a long time," said Evans, who resumed training in October. "Mark Schubert kept [teasing], 'Whatever you do, don't false start.' … It was just kind of weird. Like, how do I do a start and how do I not false start? My start was a little crooked because I was just trying to get in the pool somehow."
One of her competitors in the 400 was training partner and carpool buddy Brian Goodell, a double gold medalist in 1976 and a former world-record holder. This was Goodell's first 400 freestyle in 31 years, for the record.
"She's a champion and she hasn't lost anything with her age or what she's done and the time she's taken off," Goodell said.
Evans won three gold medals at the 1988 Olympics and added another gold four years later. Her final race was the 800 freestyle at Atlanta in 1996, in which she finished sixth. For now, the plan is to compete in another masters meet and then decide whether to go to Nationals in August at Palo Alto.
Evans said thoughts of returning to the pool never went away and that they moved to the forefront during the Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine last summer when she watched the 800 freestyle. The winning time was 8:21.59, and 8:24.51 was good for second place.
Said Evans: "It was always in the back of my head, but watching them go 8:25's, I was like … I think if people were swimming 8:10's, it'd be like, 'Oh, it's amazing, have a wonderful time. I'm going to sleep in.' I just feel like I have it in me."
Schubert surprised her with his immediate response to her plan. He didn't question her sanity when she asked him if this was a crazy idea.
" 'What do you think?' " Evans recalled asking him. "He said, 'I've been waiting a lot time for you to tell me this.' Sorry, I was too busy having babies."
Evans said she has not spoken to Dara Torres, who competed in the 2008 Olympics at age 41. Torres, though, is a sprinter, not a distance swimmer.
"I think [it is] apples and oranges," Schubert said. "But I think Dara's been an inspiration to everyone. I don't think you'd see all those comebacks without what Dara did."