Four summers ago, the sporting world applauded as swimmer Dara Torres un-retired at 41 to make the U.S. team for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where she won three silver medals, one on her own and two in relays.
Now, as the next Olympiad looms just six weeks away in London, another American swimming legend has resurfaced, trying to follow a similar path.
Janet Evans, who stunned the swim world as a 17-year-old in 1988 at Seoul with three gold medals, then took part in the Summer Games of 1992 in Barcelona and 1996 in Atlanta, has been training for a year in her quest for an encore as a 40-year-old mother of two. Nothing is being handed to Evans, just as Torres had to earn her way back. Evans will join the nation's other elite swimmers, at the U.S. Olympic Trials the week of June 25 to July 2 in Omaha, Neb.
Asked recently by CNN whether she should concede to a new generation, Evans replied, "Well, if I swim fast enough, who says it's not my time?" She added that she's inspired by the fact that "at 40, I can come back and actually swim with 17-year-olds and keep up with them." Seeing that, and hearing her on a radio interview sounding assured as ever, brought back a memory.
I had covered Evans at the Seoul Games, where the lanky 5-foot-6 Californian had set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle that would last 16 years — amazing in that sport. But then, just two months later, instead of basking in her victories, she was back in the water, here in Colorado Springs.
One day in November 1988, I was invited to watch Evans go through a test session in the Olympic Training Center's flume, basically a treadmill in water. It turned out to be one of the most unforgettable performances I've seen in any sport.
After warming up, Evans jumped into the flume, with sensors attached to her body and a mask over her face, capturing her breath. Slowly, the machine cranked up, creating an adjustable current. The athlete's only task is to swim against that current, which on this day was forcing Evans to swim at almost competition-level speed, with monitors checking her various functions as well as her actual swimming form. Already, her coaches and U.S. sports scientists had marveled at Evans' endurance, as she could outlast even the top men swimmers in the flume.
For this test, which included short breaks to have blood samples taken, I watched in awe as Evans swam, maintaining her pace seemingly forever, and we also looked at a monitor showing Evans' heart rate. It eventually rose to 160 beats a minute, on to 180 and all the way to 198. The sports medicine people shook their heads. Nobody else could keep going that well, that long, with a heart rate that fast.
As I wrote in the Gazette, one swimming official described the moment this way: "One ninety-eight. Folks, that's incredible."
When she finally stopped and took off that mask, Evans couldn't stop grinning.
"This thing is so great," she said to our group. "You swim so fast, but you just stay there in one place."
Evans always liked training in Colorado Springs, usually at the Harrison High School pool where she would push herself to the max. Now she lives in Laguna Beach (south of Los Angeles) with her husband and kids, training daily in nearby Huntington Beach, while not giving up her normal family life.
But she never stopped taking care of herself, staying busy as a motivational speaker. Evans insists that now she can benefit from being emotionally mature and psychologically stronger. Of course, having seen her up close in her teen years, it's hard to imagine how she could have it more together now.
We'll see how far Janet Evans can push herself this time. But you get the feeling she's convinced that whatever Dara Torres could do in 2008, she can do better.