One of the greatest distance swimmers in history turns 46 today.
Janet Evans is a true legend. A three-time Olympian, she won four golds and one silver medal. Small in stature and employing an unorthodox “windmill” stroke, the inexhaustible Evans swam like the Energizer Bunny, wearing down her opponents with a grit and determination never before seen in the pool. Synonymous with excellence, Evans dominated distance swimming for a decade. Between 1986 and 1995, she won 25 of 27 major international races at 400 meters and 22 of 23 at 800 meters. The three-time World Swimmer of the Year, Evans won 17 international titles, 45 U.S. national titles, and broke seven world records. She is the first woman to break the 16-minute barrier for the 1,500 meter freestyle, going 15:52.1 at the 1988 USA Spring Nationals – a time that would have won the gold medal in the men’s 1,500m in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
“As a child growing up swimming in the 80s, Evans was a role model to me and every swimmer I knew,” said 2008 Olympian Kim Vandenberg. Evans did not just break world records, she shattered them. In a sport where marks are often lowered from heat to heat and day to day, Evans set some of the longest-standing records in swimming. Her world record in the 400 meters lasted nearly 18 years, while her 800 and 1,500 meter marks stood for 19 years. Evans’ 800-meter world record, set in August 1989, endured through four Olympics. Like Katie Ledecky, who has surpassed Janet as the greatest female distance swimmer in history, Evans was tireless. Swimming races are won by fingertips. The margin of victory is often measured in hundredths of a second. Evans won by body lengths, and the longer the race, the greater her margin of victory.
The United States is the world leader in swimming. No country can match the speed and depth of the Americans in the pool. Simply qualifying for Team USA is an amazing feat, and Evans did it three times between 1988 and 1996. In 1992, she became the first swimmer to win back-to-back Olympic and World Championship titles in the 800-meter freestyle. Although Evans failed to medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games, she was given the honor of passing the Olympic torch to Muhammad Ali before he famously lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremonies.
Born in the southern California town of Fullerton on this date in 1971, Janet Beth Evans was a natural born swimmer. At two, she would swim laps, then emerge from the water for a bottle and diaper change. The youngster first swam competitively at four. By 11, Evans was setting national age group records in distance events. She trained with Fullerton Aquatic Sports Team [FAST Swimming] then competed for El Dorado High School, alma mater of another teen phenom, Michael Chang, who, at 17, became the youngest male Grand Slam tennis champion by winning the 1989 French Open.
Evans burst onto the international scene at 15, breaking the world record in the 800-meter freestyle at the 1987 USA Nationals in Orlando. At the same meet four days later, she bettered the world record for 1,500 meters. Shortly after turning 16, Evans broke the world record in the 400-meter free, a mark that had stood for over nine years. Barely a high-schooler, Evans had established herself as the most dominant distance swimmer in the world.
Janet Evans became a household name in the fall of 1988, winning gold medals in every event she entered. “Miss Perpetual Motion” claimed gold in the 400m and 800m freestyle, as well as the 400m individual medley. She became America’s darling in the 400m final when, competing against Heike Friedrich – the 200m gold medalist and pre-race favorite known for her closing speed – Evans set a torrid pace that the East German could not match, setting a world record that stood for nearly 18 years [it was later proven that Friedrich was part of a decades-long doping system employed by East German swimmers].
After graduating El Dorado High, Evans accepted a scholarship to Stanford University, where she won seven NCAA titles. In 1988-89, she earned the Honda Sports Award as the outstanding college female swimmer of the year. In 1989, she won the Sullivan Award as best amateur athlete in the U.S. Swimmers are notorious for the hours they spend training. Twice-daily pool workouts, coupled with dry-land and lifting sessions, are common. Distance swimmers train even longer, as the conditioning required to compete in races longer than 400 meters is extraordinary. When the NCAA placed weekly hours limits on athletic training time in the early 90s, Evans left Stanford to focus on training for the 1992 Olympics [she graduated from USC with a communications degree in 1994].
Entering the 1992 Olympics, Evans had not lost a 400m, 800m or 1,500m race in over five years. In the 400-meter final in Barcelona, she led for almost the entire race before being out-touched by Germany’s Dagmar Hase, earning a silver medal. Evans found redemption two days later, claiming gold in the 800m by a whopping eight body lengths. It would prove to be the last Olympic medal in the storied career of one of America’s greatest swimmers.
Janet Evans won the 400m and 800m freestyle events at the U.S. National Championships a dozen times each — the most ever won in a single event in American swimming history. Her 45 American national titles are third-most all time, behind only Tracy Caulkins and Michael Phelps. In 2012, at 40, Evans attempted a comeback but failed to qualify for her fourth Olympic team. Now married with two children, she makes her home in Laguna Beach, California. In 2015, she joined the LA 2024 bid committee, where she serves as vice chair in charge of giving athletes a voice in Los Angeles’ proposal for hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics. Evans was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2001. Three years later, she was elected to the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.