By Scott M. Reid, The Orange County Register –
LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. — A few minutes past 4:30 a.m. on a recent weekday, Janet Evans sleepily raced her BMW through a light rain, north up Pacific Coast Highway, her personal comeback trail cutting through the darkness.
In a way, the journey Evans makes five mornings a week from her home in Laguna Beach to the pool at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif., is similar to most of her career — an empty lane in front of her, nobody in sight as she churns through uncharted waters.
Months shy of her 41st birthday, nearly a quarter of a century since she became the cover girl for the 1988 Olympic Games by almost single-handedly winning swimming’s cold war, and 16 years after she first retired from the sport, Evans is trying to defy time one last time. Evans will swim the 400- and 800-meter freestyles at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials this month in Omaha, Neb., the likely final stop in her unlikely comeback; the epilogue to the story of history’s greatest female distance swimmer.
But on this day, as Evans drives in the dark, past a familiar roadside of empty doughnut shops and storefronts, she is just trying to stay awake.
“Who wants to get up at 4:30?” she asked before giving in to an extended yawn that seems to make her point. “That’s a yawn.”
Her mind (not to mention a body exhausted by nine workouts a week) is still back in bed at the house with the white picket fence she shares with her husband, Billy Willson, and their two children, Sydney, 5, and Jake, 2, a short walk from the Pacific Ocean, a sort of Cleavers-move-to-the beach existence. But her heart is in a comeback that has both re-energized her and allowed her to take a second, more appreciative look at what she calls “my first career.”
“Every day, every day,” Evans said when asked if she ever questions her decision to launch a comeback, which began in late 2010. “But you always do, I think. It’s the whole instant gratification thing of like, ‘Oh, I’d just rather be in bed.’”
“But that future reward just looks so good.”
In her predawn commute, and in the hundreds of miles of labor in a cold pool, Evans has found clarity in the darkness, a realization that her prize is not in the destination but in the journey; that her reward is not making the 2012 Olympic Games but the soul-searching adventure to be found on a road to London that likely goes no farther than Nebraska.
At 40 and out of the pool for 14 years, she has swum an 800 fast enough to place in the top eight at the 1984 Olympics. Her time stunned a sport that had long thought it could no longer be surprised by Janet Evans.
More importantly, Evans surprised herself with both the courage she needs as she makes such a public comeback and in her rediscovery of the competitive flame that always burned red hot behind the wide smile.
The woman who once counted the days until she could retire, after the 1996 Olympics, has fallen in love again with swimming. In doing so, she has found a perspective on her world-record-shattering career – and an opportunity to leave the sport on her own terms.
“I took my first career for granted,” she said. “(This comeback) also makes me … wish I would have enjoyed it more. It felt like work at the end because I had so much pressure on me. But this is fun.”
While Evans usually makes the commute alone, thousands of women, in spirit, are riding shotgun with her. Many of the same women who, as girls and young women, were inspired by America’s Golden Girl in the 1980s and ’90s, now find strength in the universal message in her comeback. Somewhere between flip turns, Evans’ return became about something more than just swimming.
“This transcends the whole idea of her making the Olympics,” said Rowdy Gaines, 53, a former Olympic champion swimmer. “There’s a much bigger thing going on here and she gets it. With Janet you have this mom with two kids who can swim (800 meters) in 8 ½ minutes and, at 40, still get up before 5 a.m. and still be a great mom and wife. What Janet’s done tells mothers, ‘You can do other things.’”
But if Evans gets it not everyone else does. She has been publicly and privately criticized by former athletes, some of whom have questioned her motivation, her priorities and her parenting. And she has been second-guessed by some in the media who have questioned the comeback’s potential impact on her legacy and, in the case of one reporter, on her children.
“There’s certainly been some negativity to it because I don’t think some people understand why I do it, or kind of what makes me stick with it or why,” Evans said. “I never expected everyone to get it.”
Still, the negativity is an exception. For the most part her comeback has been embraced by her sport and the public, not to mention her corporate sponsors. At the Olympic Trials this month, the storyline of Evans’ return will likely be second only to the anticipated showdown between Michael Phelps, winner of a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Games, and his rival Ryan Lochte.
“Next to Michael, she’s going to be the most popular athlete at the Trials,” Gaines said.
But she is no longer the fastest.
In April, at the Fran Crippen Memorial in Mission Viejo, Evans swam the 800 in 8 minutes, 46.89 seconds. That’s nearly 40 seconds under the old world record for the 40-44 age group, but it ranks 29th in the U.S. this season, more than 20 seconds slower than the leading American time of 8:25.85 by Kathleen Ledecky, a 15-year-old. In fact, of the top 30 U.S. swimmers at 800 meters, 15 are teenagers. After Evans, the next oldest swimmer in the top 30 is 24. “For me it was a question of having confidence to know that you can’t take away what I’ve done, and the courage to stand up to the naysayers who would say, ‘Well, this is going to tarnish (her legacy),’” Evans said.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to say, ‘Oh, she was a great swimmer but at 40 she couldn’t make the Olympic team.’ When you kind of peel back the layers on that one I don’t see how anybody could say that.”
Mark Schubert, her longtime coach and former U.S. national team director, insists Evans has yet to swim her best.
“Her training level actually indicates she can do a lot faster,” he said. Fast enough, Schubert maintains, to get Evans a spot in the 800 final in Omaha. “And once you make the finals it’s who knows.
“Then it’s a dogfight,” Schubert added. “And, for some people, they fold under the pressure. Janet rises to the occasion. That’s kind of her element.”
It was 5:23 a.m. and the Golden West swimmers were beginning their workout on a chilly morning.
“Am I always the last one in?” Evans asked Schubert.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time,” Schubert said.
“Unless I push you in,” he added.
“This is the hardest part,” Evans said before finally taking the plunge.
Evans was 17 and an El Dorado (Calif.) High student when she won gold medals in the 400- and 800-meter freestyles and 400 individual medley at the 1988 Olympic Games. A year later she lowered her own 800 world record to 8:16.22, which would be considered swimming’s version of Bob Beamon’s long jump world record – a record that might be untouched for a generation. Evans would hold the 800 mark for more than 20 years. But after picking up a second 800 Olympic gold in 1992 she was burned out. By the time she reached the 1996 Games in Atlanta, she was ready to move on with her life.
Still, after Atlanta, Schubert tried repeatedly to nudge Evans back into the pool, convinced she could still swim with the best in the world. Each time Evans refused.
“People say, ‘Why didn’t you do this earlier?’ Well, in 2000, I was so burned out I had no interest in swimming. In 2004 I got married. In 2006 I had Syd. I was kind of busy having my life and it never really occurred to me. It kind of became the first chance in my life that I had,” she said pausing to yawn, “a chance to do it. I think it’s always kind of still in us a little bit.”
In the summer of 2010 both the U.S. championships and Pan Pacific Games were in Irvine, and Schubert again lobbied Evans to return, pointing out the top U.S. 800 times were in the mid 8:20s — a time she’d beaten as a younger swimmer.
“I was actually down on the beach on day of 800 and Mark just texted me, ‘Here are the times,’” Evans recalled. “I don’t remember what they were at all and I said, ‘OK, maybe I should swim again.’ And I was half-joking and he said, ‘As you should. I’ve been wanting you to tell me that for four years.’ (And Evans said) ‘Are you serious? Isn’t it crazy?’ and he said, ‘No, I don’t think it’s crazy.’”
“I never pushed her into this,” Schubert said. “She was the one who asked me if she could do this, and I encouraged her, but this was her idea.”
A few days after that text exchange, Evans was back in the pool swimming an 800 with then 12-year-old Courtney Mykkanen, now a Olympic Trials qualifier in the 200 backstroke.
“She lapped me,” Evans said, laughing.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, swimming is such a different fitness level than any other kind of fitness.’ And I thought I can’t do this. Every time I do this it will get easier. And so it did.
“Every workout got a little bit easier, and easier. And before I knew it, Mark was kind of back in the area, doing workouts at Golden West. And it just kind of happened.”
She started off swimming in the Golden West “kiddie pool” and still warms up in the smaller, warmer pool.
“Age has its privileges,” Schubert cracked.
Evans now swims 8,000 meters (4.97 miles) each weekday morning followed by another 8,000 in the afternoon, with another session on Saturdays. She and Schubert call the adventure The Project.
“We were going to take it day by day, week by week, month by month. For the first year,” she said. “I would say to him on a daily basis, ‘Am I crazy?’ Just wanted to make sure I’m still not crazy and Mark would say ‘No.’”
Evans makes it clear that The Project would not have proceeded without Schubert who, despite Team USA’s record-setting success at Olympic Games and World Championships under him, was forced out as U.S. national team director in the fall of 2010 in a dispute with USA Swimming administrators.
“Mark’s been right there by her side all the way,” said her mother, Barbara Evans. “Without him she would have had to do this on her own and I think she would have given up a long time ago.”
Recently, Willson told his wife, “Mark’s not only your coach, he’s your psychologist.”
“It was a real mental thing to have Mark,” Evans said. “I needed him to tell me I was doing OK.
“And, obviously, he knows what he’s doing. And, he knew if I was doing 9:46s I would still be asleep right now. Happily.”
Evans keeps a notebook with a list of all the pools she’s swam in during her comeback. The list runs 40 pools — pools on the top of five-star New York hotels; a 10-meter pool at a Detroit hotel; a state-of-the-art pool at an inner city school, also in the Motor City; country club pools across the country.
Her public speaking career and her work for corporate sponsors like BMW, Arena swimwear and Metamucil have her on the road four or five times a month. In April, she was at a BMW dinner until midnight in New York then up the next morning in time to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight from JFK to LAX. She stopped home to have lunch with her children. “And then I went to the pool,” she said.
All of which makes the 8:46.89 she swam at the Crippen meet earlier this year all the more impressive.
“I wanted to make (U.S. Olympic) Trials,” Evans said. “I swam an 8:36 in Atlanta. To come back and be (less than) 10 seconds slower than I was at the Olympics, to even come close to those times – for me, it’s like I still don’t know how I did it. It’s kind of crazy to me. I think I kind of respect and appreciate things a little more. Just the fact that I can do this. That my body still allows me to do it, so it’s been very, really fulfilling.”
Not that everyone has shared her enthusiasm for The Project. She has been criticized and her motivations questioned by both former swimmers and the media. And then there’s the drug testing. Evans has been tested by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency at least eight times in the past year, according to Evans and USADA records. She has passed all eight tests.
“She always feels like they’re kind of stalking her,” Schubert said.
Evans has long been an advocate for cleaning up Olympic sports. She was a member of a FINA board that pushed for more comprehensive drug testing.
“Now I’m living it,” she said.
Testers can show up unannounced anywhere, anytime and athletes must provide both urine and blood samples. Once the process begins athletes cannot leave the testers’ sight. Evans has been followed into the bathroom by testers and was even tested while watching Sydney’s gymnastics class. “They just drew blood while I was sitting there,” she said.
“I don’t mind peeing in a cup. But the blood, the (disruption) has been the hardest part of all this,” she said.
The testing, like the criticism she’s heard from some quarters, hasn’t caught Evans by surprise.
“I had critics in the ‘80s who said I couldn’t beat the East Germans, and in the ‘90s that I was too old. But at the end of the day, I answer to my family and they are certainly super-supportive and happy for me. And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”
Yet for every critic there are hundreds of women who have embraced her comeback. A woman in central California was moved by Evans to lose lost weight and take up triathlons.
“The women on the street, the moms who want to follow their dreams – they could care less about my times, they just draw inspiration from it,” Evans said.
What her critics don’t understand is that the predawn commute has never been an ego trip but a journey to reconnect with a lifetime love. “The Trials are just the icing,” she said. “So I’m ending on a much more positive note than Atlanta, much more positive and on my terms and with my goals and expectations and no one else’s.”
BORN: Aug. 28, 1971; Fullerton, Calif.
HOME: Laguna Beach, where she lives with husband Bill Willson and their children, Sydney, 5 and Jake, 2.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Won five Olympic medals, including four gold, at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics; and 45 U.S. National titles. Held seven world records in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle events, and her record in the 800 stood through four Olympic Games. Announced a comeback in 2010 with the intention of qualifying for the U.S. National Olympic Team trials this month in Omaha, Neb. She has qualified in the 800.
OF NOTE: Gave the torch to Muhammad Ali to light the cauldron for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Endorses products as diverse as BMW automobiles and the health company Lyfe Kitchen and still works regularly as a motivational speaker. Was known for her “windmill” swim style.
EDUCATION: Graduated from USC in 1994 with a degree in communications.