Janet Evans' return to the Olympic Trials at age 40 is a huge hit with appreciative fans in Omaha

OMAHA, Neb. – In honor of Janet Evans' greatness and her willingness to battle the undefeated Father Time, the crowd at CenturyLink Center rose in applause Tuesday when she reached the starting blocks.

At age 40, the greatest of all female American distance swimmers was back at the U.S. Olympic Trials for the first time since 1996. Now a mother of two, she was competing in unfamiliar territory: a mid-pack heat of the 400-meter freestyle. She was surrounded by swimmers less than half her age – seven teenagers were in the field.

Janet Evans after competing in a 400m prelim heat. (AFP Photo/Al Bello)
Janet Evans after competing in a 400m prelim heat. (AFP Photo/Al Bello)

"They're closer in age to my children," Evans said afterward, her trademark toothy grin and giggle still part of the package.

To the surprise of no one, the kids cleaned her clock. Evans finished 80th in the event and seventh in her heat, nearly seven seconds behind 19-year-old heat winner Danielle Siverling. Evans' time of 4 minutes, 21.49 seconds, is a distant echo of the world-record 4:03.85 she swam 24 years ago. That mark stood for 18 years – an eternity in swimming time – and she still holds the American 800 free record she set in 1989.

"I wish I would've swam faster," Evans said, but nobody else seemed to mind where she finished.

It's one thing to sprint at an advanced age – the training wear and tear for sprinters tends to be much less. To swim distance events at her age, and at an Olympic Trials level, is pretty much unheard of.

[ Photos: More of Janet Evans through the years ]

"I think it's just great she's making a comeback at 40," Siverling said. "[Swimming the 400 free] hurts when you're 19. It hurts a lot more when you're 40."

The standing ovation from an appreciative crowd – both before and after the race – wasn't for the swimmer Evans is now. It was for the relentless little dynamo Evans was in 1980s (she won three gold medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics), and the fearless middle-aged competitor she is today.

"It was so sweet," Evans said. "Afterward was really lovely. … I was actually more nervous than ever before the race. It was very different, just swimming to swim, feeling no pressure, just to be here to enjoy it."

Body willing, Janet Evans will be back later in the week to swim her better event, the 800 freestyle. Nobody expects her to make the Olympic team. Everyone expects her to get another heartfelt ovation from an appreciative audience.

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