After 15-year absence, Janet Evans returns to pool, eyes Olympics

Chris Chase
June 13, 2011

In her first competitive race in 15 years, Janet Evans picked up where she left off.

The 39-year-old set two age-group world records in her return to the pool this weekend, shattering marks in her former marquee events, the 400 and 800 freestyle. Evans, who won four gold medals during her decorated swimming career, hadn't raced since the 1996 Olympics.

Her time in the 800, the event in which she held the world record for 20 years, was 122nd fastest in the world this year, four seconds slower than the time standard for August's U.S. championships and nine seconds off an Olympic trials cut. The 8:59.06 broke the old world record in the 35-39 age group by more than 10 seconds. Her time in the 400 also set the record for the age group.

Evans' stroke didn't change much over the years, she still has that unorthodox head bob and straight left arm. Her smile didn't change either, as the California native looks very much like the grinning teenager who captured the attention of the country during the 1988 Olympics.

There's no comparison for what she is doing, no bar for where a mother of two who last swam when Ross Perot was a presidential candidate should be after six months of training in an unexpected comeback. Touching the wall in respectable times near national cuts is an encouraging beginning, though. (Especially considering she swam the 800 in an empty pool without any competition.)

Her ultimate goal is to make the Olympics. Evans' age, her time out of the pool and the fact that long-distance swimming traditionally favors younger racers are but a few of the reasons why that dream should prove impossible. It's unheard of for any athlete to take a 15-year layoff and return in good form, particularly in a sport where being old enough to rent a car practically qualifies you for AARP benefits.

The world's fastest time this year in the 800-meter freestyle was turned in by a 19-year-old. Only eight of the women in the top 150 in the world are older than 25. And then there's the soon-to-be 40-year-old Janet Evans, who started training after Christmas and is posting respectable times while shaking off a decade-and-a-half of rust. Her quest is all but certain to end short of London, but there's a distinct feeling that by the time Janet Evans hangs up her suit again, she'll have let the kids know that the old lady still had something left in the tank.