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SHE’S CUTE AND SASSY AND BRINGS HOME GOLD

by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SEOUL, South Korea — She wins. Hands down. They can stop the Olympics now, because America has found its sweetheart, its new Mary Lou. If that smile doesn’t get her on television, billboards and Wheaties boxes from Maine to Mexico, then somebody’s sleeping on the job.

“How are you coming on your homework?” someone asked Janet Evans, 17, after she won her third and final gold medal Saturday in the 800-meter freestyle swim.

“No comment,” she giggled.

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’m doing it on the plane home.”

Awesome. Too cool. Is she the perfect teenager, or what? Every Olympics, we look to adopt someone who’s fresh and apple- cheeked — someone who says the right things and does the right things and really came to the Games just to compete, not to become famous. And then — presto! — we make that person famous, anyhow. In the case of Janet Evans (who looks disarmingly like a young Mackenzie Phillips in “American Graffiti”), she deserves it all.

Evans has won gold medals in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle and the 400-meter individual medley — the only American who will win three golds in three individual events in 1988. And every time she stepped on that victory stand — barefoot, for some reason, but then, who can figure teenagers? — she looked as if she was about to burst with glee.

“Is it different the second time than the first?” someone asked her.

“No, every time up there is great, I’m proud to be here and it’s honor to compete and to win. . . .”

She smiled.

“. . . and stuff.”

Perfect.

Did you see her in the pool Saturday? Did you watch that whippoorwill style, those flailing arms and that irregular breathing and that tiny body (by comparison to her Eastern Bloc opponents) churning and whirring in an all-out splash for glory? Janet Evans, one writer said, “swims like a wind-up bathroom toy.” She is only 5-feet-4, 105 pounds. Yet she owns world records, three gold medals, and, by the end of today, more than likely, a new wardrobe.

“I finally get to go shopping in Itaewon (the popular tourist district where U.S. athletes have spent most of their free time). But it’s Sunday. My luck it’ll be closed for Korean Thanksgiving or something! Gaaad.”

Here is cute. Here is sassy. Here is a young woman who has lassoed glory and yanked it back to high school, and she has done it the way, deep down, we all think it should be done — with hard work, no drugs, and some semblance of a normal life. It is true, Evans gets up before the sun in her Placentia, Calif., home, and swims 11 times a week — before school, after school — and lifts weights and rides stationary bikes and travels the world for meets. It is also true that she loves burritos and milkshakes, and knows most of the shopping malls inside out.

“To my friends at home,” she said, with a gold medal hanging around her neck, “I’m just Janet. That’s all I want to be, and I hope when I get home, that’s how they treat me.”

She said it sitting next to an East German swimmer, Astrid Strauss, who, with all due respect, looks as if she could play for the Chicago Bears. And the contrast is more than physical. Janet Evans was never shipped away to a sports school miles from home. Her parents did not force her into the pool —
“We’re not particularly athletic” says her mother, Barbara. And yet they encouraged her when she showed promise, and they car-pooled her to countless meets and countless practices and fed her sandwiches in the back seat.

It’s the right way, isn’t it? When Janet used to come home from competitions, Paul Evans, her father, never asked how well she did. Instead, he wanted to know how much fun she had.

And she had a blast here in Seoul.

“I’ve had a great week. I was relaxed and being in the Olympics has been great. But I’ve been away from home for like two months now, and I miss it.”

“Will you swim for your high school team?”

“Oh, sure!” she snapped, as if we had asked whether she had a date for the prom. “I love swimming for my high school team.”

She paused. She giggled.

“I don’t have to go to the practices. I just have to be at the meets.”

Happy? You bet. And there have been a number of happy Americans already at these Games, which have reached their midway point: Jackie Joyner-Kersee, waving joyfully at the crowd after her gold medal and world record in the heptathlon; diver Greg Louganis, stitches in his scalp after banging his head on the springboard, singing the national anthem on the gold medal podium; Lynnette Love, Detroit’s own, bouncing and laughing after her victory in Taekwondo.

We are not winning as we won in 1984. We are not stockpiling the precious metals. But then, isn’t that what makes them precious? These are the first bona fide Summer Olympics since 1972. The whole athletic world, save Cuba, is taking part, and though America will not dominate — and should not be expected to dominate — the medals it does win are that much sweeter.

And, speaking of sweet . . .

“Janet, what homework are you supposed to do?”

“It’s, um, English. I’m supposed to read like 300 pages of this book,
‘Siddhartha’ by Hermann Hee-see.”

“Hesse.”

“Yeah. But I’ve, like, only read one page. It’s been hard to concentrate. I think I’m just gonna go back and just see what the teacher says.”

“What about endorsements, Janet? You can probably make a lot of money. Maybe a million dollars.”

“Well, yeah, a lot of people are telling me that. But I just want to finish school and go to college. College can give you a chance to do stuff, like get away from home.”

“So can a million dollars.”

She laughed.

“Well, if you’re trying to convince me . . .

Wrap it up. Kill the lights. The star search is over, and you can drape that Mary Lou Award around her neck — provided you can catch her before she runs amok with Daddy’s credit card. We are going to fall in love with Janet Evans over and over — every time we see that wet smile, that floppy hair, that barefoot walk to the podium. She waves to us as if we were a boyfriend in a convertible, and we wave back, because something about Janet Evans reminds us of youth, promise, and the glory that real dedication can bring.

“So you don’t feel like Queen of America right now?”

Another giggle. “No, I’m just Janet. I mean . . . I’m proud to have won and all, but what am I supposed to say to that — Queen of America? ‘Yaaah? I am?’ “

Yaaah. For today, she is.

And stuff. CUTLINE: Janet Evans of Placentia, Calif., hugs Australia’s Julie McDonald after Evans won the women’s 800-meter freestyle Saturday.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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