Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans swims during a training session at Golden… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Stroking through the water confidently and surely was as satisfying as Janet Evans remembered. So was the pure joy of getting her body to obey her mind.
But soon after the five-time Olympic medalist began training for a return to competitive swimming she was reminded of aspects of athletic life that had — mercifully — slipped her mind.
"I'd forgotten how cold pools can be at 4:45 in the morning," she said. "I'm always the last person in the water."
Then there was the night officials of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency arrived on her Laguna Beach doorstep around 10 o'clock to collect a urine sample for drug testing. Evans, ready for bed after putting her 2-year-old son and nearly 5-year-old daughter to sleep, couldn't immediately comply. The testers waited until she did.
So much for a quiet family evening.
"We live in this little, tiny cottage, so everyone was awake," she said, laughing. "And USADA showed up the day after my birthday as well, at the pool. Happy birthday!"
Those indignities aside, she's enjoying her attempt to qualify for the London Olympics in the 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle events. Making the Olympic team is a longshot, and she first must qualify for the U.S. trials next June. But her attempt is no joke and her effort is worth celebrating, no matter the outcome.
"I spent half my life swimming worrying about what people thought and if I was fast enough and if I was good enough and what was wrong and why wasn't I breaking world records. And now it's kind of like I don't care what anyone thinks," said Evans, who grew up in Placentia and won three gold medals at the 1988 Seoul Games between her junior and senior years at El Dorado High.
"I'm doing it for myself. And I'm happy and I'm 40 years old and I could never swim another stroke and I could still have my home and my kids and my husband still loves me. It's all good, and I don't think it's ever going to take away from my legacy."
She had a comfortable life with her husband, Bill Willson, and kids, Sydney and Jake, in their picturesque, beach-close home. She also had a rewarding and lucrative career as a motivational speaker.
But a year ago, the day she turned 39 and her son turned 1, she looked toward 40 and saw a void. She needed a purpose, a goal.
She began swimming as a three-month project to become fit, but turned it into a mission, juggling twice-daily pool sessions and weightlifting with family responsibilities. Her parents help with baby-sitting, glad for time with their only grandchildren.
"It's madness," Evans said, smiling. "I came home the other day and my daughter said, 'Mommy, you smell of chlorine.' I had forgotten that. Other than that, I forgot how good it feels to be in really good shape. And really fit. And kind of feel like you can do anything, physically at least."
Evans won gold in the 400, 800 and 400 individual medley at Seoul and gold in the 800 and silver in the 400 at Barcelona four years later. She finished sixth in the 800 at Atlanta but is best remembered for handing the Olympic torch to Muhammad Ali to light the caldron in the opening ceremony.
She dominated distance events with an unorthodox windmill stroke and bottomless determination. Those haven't changed.
"She doesn't have anything to prove to anybody, but she likes this challenge and she's seen a lot of progress in the past year," said her coach, Mark Schubert. "It's pretty hard duty, but she shows up with a smile on her face every day."
She's not alone in climbing back into the pool. Dara Torres, 44, retired twice and had a baby in 2006 before winning three silver medals at Beijing. She's recovering from knee surgery and trying for a sixth Olympic berth. Australian Ian Thorpe retired after winning five gold medals in 2000 and 2004 but is aiming to compete in London at 29.
The difference is Torres and Thorpe are sprinters, and as a distance swimmer Evans' workouts are more taxing. In her favor is that times in the 800 haven't dropped as dramatically as in other events: Evans has held the American record for 22 years and lost the world record only three years ago.
She competed in two masters' meets this summer with top times of 4 minutes 23.87 seconds in the 400 and 8:59.06 in the 800, and Schubert said she has done better in training. The Olympic trials qualifying standards are 4:19.39 in the 400 and 8:50.49 in the 800. She hopes to get those times at a USA Swimming competition early next year.
"I am very confident she'll get to the Olympic trials and after that we'll see how it goes," Schubert said. "We've got a lot of time and the training is improving exponentially every day.
"She certainly is serious. You don't put this kind of effort into a frivolous project."
If she wasn't serious she wouldn't plunge into that chilly pool every day at Golden West College alongside high school boys who weren't born when she competed. Their hunger to improve reminds her of younger days and empowers her.
"I think it's something in my soul," she said. "Swimming is in my soul, and I missed it and I needed it and it makes me feel kind of complete."