TURN OF EVENTSJANET EVANS WILL SWIM THE FINAL RACE OF HER CAREERTONIGHT. WITH A BROKEN TOE.AFTER BARELY QUALIFYING FOR THE FINAL.

ATLANTA — Janet Evans is a better story than a swimmer these days. That’s fine if you’re retired. Hank Aaron is now a better story than a home run hitter, and Joe Frazier is a better story than a boxer.

The problem is, Janet Evans is still in the water.

She was there again Wednesday, first in the big pool, in front of a cheering Olympic crowd, and then in the practice pool, where she cooled down and waited for the other swimmers to finish. She needed to wait, because their times would determine whether she’d even make the final of her last Olympic event. She reached for her foot and rubbed it. She had banged her right toe before the race and it was killing her. It was broken. “I can’t do anything on dry land,” she would later groan.

This was hardly vintage Janet, all this gloom and disaster. In the glory summers of 1988 and 1992, making finals was never an issue for the California kid. But this is 1996, and Evans had swum a slow 800-meter freestyle, finishing third in her heat. And while you’re not supposed to use up all your energy in these races, you are supposed to go fast enough to advance. Evans wasn’t sure she had.

So she stretched in the water and she floated back and forth and she tried to pretend that it didn’t really matter if she bombed out — “I was kind of like, whatever happens, happens,” she would later say — and that of course is as big a lie as they come. It matters. It always matters. You don’t get to these Olympics if it doesn’t matter.

But swimmers are mechanical, they train thousands of miles, they measure their strokes, they taper to a peak until they are finely tuned machines, and all the evidence suggests that 24-year-old Janet Evans is simply not as fast a machine as the people she is up against.

But no one wants to believe it.

The next generation

“I just want to go out and do what I can do,” she would say. “That’s all I can ask of myself. To do my best.”

She had said similar things two days earlier, when she finished ninth in the 400-meter qualifying and didn’t even get to swim in the final. Forget the gold that NBC kept talking about. Forget silver or bronze. Evans’ name wouldn’t even be listed in the history books. And she is the world record- holder in the event.

Ah, but that record — and others in the 800 and 1,500 meters — were set years ago, when time was on her side, when her body came back strong and tight after difficult workouts, when practices were not yet drudgery and kids five years younger were still splashing in junior high, instead of looking at her and thinking, “Move over, old girl, I’m coming.”

There was someone like that in the pool Wednesday. A small, perky Florida kid named Brooke Bennett. She just turned 16. She won her 800 heat easily. She is aggressive and she is a medal favorite tonight and she already has warned that “someone is coming up to take Janet’s place.”

That someone would be her.

Cocky little thing, isn’t she?

Well, wasn’t it just a blink ago that Evans was the cocky kid, all colt-like teenage motion, big teeth, twinkling eyes? She went to Seoul in 1988
— she brought her homework with her — and won three gold medals from the clutches of the East Germans. She met President Reagan. She was grand marshal of parades. You could argue she was the biggest American star of those Games.

Then, in 1992, she went to Barcelona and took a silver in the 400. She wept at her defeat. Recently, she said, “I hate that day now. I was so disappointed in myself when I should have been proud.”

Evans was getting a taste of life as a performer, where your existence is no longer your own, but the expectations of your audience. So even when she took a gold in the 800 at Barcelona, her time was nothing compared to years ago. “What’s wrong, Janet?” they asked.

Weary of the pressure, she retired from the pool. But boxers box, divers dive and swimmers swim. She missed the water. Eventually, she came back.

And her story came with her, like a shadow.

The final chapter

Evans was standing now behind the stands at the aquatic center. She wore flip-flops and a white T-shirt and her hair was still damp. The heats were over. She had qualified for tonight’s final — barely. The top eight times make it; she was sixth. “I’m just happy to make it back to a final,” she said, looking down at her injured toe. “That was my goal.”

Read between the lines. Here is what she’s saying: I may be done here, folks. I may not be fast enough. I may have to settle for reaching the stage, not the spotlight. Can you deal with that?

Can we? Evans was chosen from among all the American athletes to run the torch in the opening ceremonies up the ramp to Muhammad Ali. That is how much the Olympic community thinks of her. That is how much the TV people think of her. Evans was, in her prime, the ideal American Olympian, well-scrubbed, happy, patriotic and invincible.

But the other day, Evans was telling reporters how she can’t wait to stop swimming. How she wants her shoulders to shrink “so I can finally buy a sundress and not look ridiculous.” How she hopes to fill the days “shopping with my mom.”

To me, these are the words of someone who has mentally checked out of battle. And if so, I say let her go. Tonight, NBC will use the dramatic music and the old footage to try to whip up another wounded hero story. But that’s not fair — because her times in the water suggest a fading swimmer. No shame in that. We just need to tell the truth. Janet Evans has given enough to the American legend, and she needn’t be anybody’s story but her own now.

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