BARCELONA, Spain — “Are you crying?” she was asked.
“No,” said Janet Evans, her eyes moist. “No, I’m fine.” She sniffed. She laughed sharply. Too sharply. The room was quiet, a bunch of older reporters trying to look away from this kid who was breaking their hearts.
She swallowed. “Everyone says it’s like the end of the world that I got second place, you know, but it’s not, it’s really not . . .” The words gushed out of her like a teenager breaking up with her boyfriend. She sniffed again and pushed away her bangs, even though they were not in her eyes.
“It’s not,” she said.
Just a half-hour earlier, in the dying heat of a Spanish afternoon, Evans had been right where we best remember her — front of the pack in the Olympic swimming pool. She had led this 400-meter freestyle race the same way she had led it four years ago in Seoul, from the opening splash, touching the wall first at every turn. Now came the home stretch, 50 meters to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Stroke. Stroke. Her windmill style was there, arms slapping the water like a wind-up toy, awkward, yet fast — but suddenly, there was a woman on her right going faster, a German named Dagmar Hase, moving up, catching her, pulling ahead . . .
When they touched the wall, an arm’s length apart, Evans popped up and spun to the scoreboard. And for the first time in her Olympic life — and the first time in this event in six years — she saw her name second. Her reaction was telling: She stiffened, as if a shock had zapped right through her.
Then she dunked herself in the water, the way kids do when they want to disappear. Growing pains
“Did you know anything about the German swimmer?” someone asked Evans in the damp and hot interview area beneath the pool.
“No . . . I . . . I mean, I’d heard she swam fast . . .” Evans sucked in air. “I felt her coming . . . I just took it out too quick.”
She fought a sob. She had lost by less than two-tenths of a second. She insisted she was not crying, even as her tears caught the reflection of the lights. Reporters looked at their feet, hoping when they looked up, she would be back to her old giggles and bubble gum. Back to the old Janet.
But there is no going back to the old Janet — which means the young Janet. And that is what this story is all about. Four years ago, Evans hit the jackpot in the indoor pool of the Seoul Olympic Park. She won all three races she entered, drawing every TV camera within 20 miles. With her Valley Girl talk, her high school homework and a smile that just took over her face, Evans, a freshly scrubbed 17, simply charmed the Speedos off those Summer Games. She could have cashed in her chips right then, signed every endorsement deal on the desk. Wheaties Box. Coke contract.
But Evans did something that almost nobody does anymore. She walked away from the money. Pushed the chips across the table and said, “Let’s keep playing.” Her explanation was simple:
“I like to swim.”
So she swam her senior year in high school. She went to Stanford and swam there. America quickly found new heroes, new faces. And, like Brigadoon, Evans and her golden Olympics faded into the mist, hoping to return in 1992.
But that was only the end of a chapter, not the whole story. By the time Barcelona reached the horizon, Evans was finding that life beyond teenage meant more than lack of curfews and the right to vote. Her body had changed. She had grown soft in some spots, muscular in others. She was two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier. She was becoming, for want of a better word, womanly, which is great for most college sophomores but a bit like lead weights for a swimmer.
Things deteriorated. She fought with her swim coach. She lost some confidence. She gave up the 400 individual medley — one of her gold-medal events in Seoul — because she couldn’t swim the breaststroke effectively anymore.
Now and then, she was asked whether she had made a mistake, not cashing in when she could have, not becoming another Mary Lou Retton. She always said no. When she transferred from Stanford, gave up her NCAA eligibility and moved to Texas, she finally got to meet Retton, who lives in Houston. They ate lunch together. They became friends. Retton confessed how she suffered so much pressure in her post-Olympic year that she gave up her sport altogether and became a full-time endorsement figure. Evans nodded. But she didn’t agree. She was determined to make another Olympic team.
And she did, which in itself is amazing. She posted the fastest times in the world this year in the 400 and 800 and qualified for both events. She was assigned a room in the Olympic village with Anita Nall, the new darling of the American chlorine set, which is so obviously ironic, even a Greek playwright wouldn’t use it: Four years ago, it was Evans with her high school jacket doing the Shirley Temple thing at the pool; now, sleeping across the room from her was 15-year- old Nall, with her stuffed animals.
And Evans was suddenly, in swimming terms, middle-aged.
“Look, I can’t stay 16 forever,” she moaned a few days ago. “No one can. But that’s what the public wants. When you come back to the Olympics, people expect to see the same person they saw four years ago. It just doesn’t happen. Time marches on, you know?
“I hate defending myself for growing up. I hate doing it right now. People see me and say, ‘god, she’s bigger, or she’s different.’ Well, god, I’m not 17 anymore. I’m 21. It happens, you know?” The golden touch
Still, all Evans needed to do was touch that wall first Tuesday and it all would come sliding back to her. The chips would be passed back across the table. The image-hungry corporations would be knocking the way they knocked four years ago. Maybe more. After all, Evans could accomplish what no woman had done since the 1920s — back-to-back Olympic golds in the 400.
As it turned out, Evans could not catch Hase; she couldn’t even catch her own ghost. In Seoul, when a big East German named Heike Friedrich threatened Evans down the stretch of the 400, the kid dug in with those flopping arms and splashed to the finish like a little speedboat. When she looked up, she saw a world-record 4:03.85 — a mark that is yet to be broken.
On Tuesday, when Evans looked up, there was no world record, just a second-place time more than three seconds slower than her Seoul performance. And something else: An NBC cameraman, hovering over the pool edge, focusing not on the winner, but on Evans, the loser. He stood five feet away, locked on her like a shadow. So this was the next role for Janet Evans: the agony of defeat.
Now she was in the interview room, lost in that indefinable place between womanhood and childhood, determined not to cry, losing the battle.
“I still have the world record,” she said. “And I still have the gold medals I won in Seoul. Nobody can take those away from me. And, god, it’s not like taking second place in the Olympics is something to be ashamed of, you know? When you think about it?
“I’m not upset about losing my winning streak.” Her voice began to crack.
“I mean, what’s a winning streak, right? . . . I mean, like, I didn’t keep count or anything . . .”
She swiped at her hair. She caught a tear with her finger. She forced a smile. And then, saying she had to see her coach, she got up to go.
As she gathered her things in the corner, a small, young woman approached her, wearing make-up and sequined black shorts. Evans looked up, gave a relieved smile, and accepted a hug.
“What’s with all these tears?” Mary Lou Retton asked.
“I just want to get out of here,” Evans sniffed.
“Then go,” Retton said, smiling.
For a moment they stood there, looking at each other, and you knew that in another place, they would have been indistinguishable, equally famous, each a household word. But Janet Evans wanted to swim, she wanted to keep going, and she shouldn’t be punished for that. She shouldn’t be remembered with any less awe. Not for a silver medal. Not for two-tenths of a second.
She might be anyhow. That’s the Olympics. Evans picked up an American flag, gathered her flowers and walked out. She’s right, you know. We don’t want them to grow up. They grow up anyhow. All of them. Even the bubble gum kids.