From the beginning, the national long course swimming championships last week in Fresno, Calif., belonged to Janet Evans, a 15-year-old water bug from Placentia, outside Los Angeles. She's a sprightly mite who wins hearts, lifts spirits and breaks records. In the first event of the meet, the women's 800-meter freestyle on Monday, July 27, Evans lopped more than two seconds off a nine-year-old world mark with a time of 8:22.44. On Wednesday she won the 400 individual medley, and on Thursday the 400 free. Finally, on Friday night, she stepped onto the blocks for the 1,500 freestyle with a chance to become the first swimmer in six years to win four national titles.
With the Seoul Games little more than a year away, Evans had already proved to be what U.S. Olympic coach Richard Quick called "the brightest light" in a coming-out party for young American swimmers. Amy Shaw, 15, broke the U.S. record in the 200 breast-stroke twice in Fresno. Dave Wharton, 18, twice lowered his own American record in the 400 IM. Another 18-year-old, Melvin Stewart, won the 200 butterfly with the best time in the world this year. Steve Bentley, 22, who has overcome a cocaine habit, trimmed the U.S. mark in the 200 breast. And Sean Killion, 19, pumped up over Evans's 800 performance, took nearly six seconds off the American record in the men's 800.
Evans, too, was excited by her time in the 800. "I'm more psyched up now," she said. "I don't think I'll settle down." By Friday, however, having swum two prelims and three finals in four days, she was tiring. So that day Evans, who normally gets up at five, slept until nine, swam a mile to stay loose and then, to relax, went shopping at Macy's.
That evening Evans went full-bore for the world 1,500 record. "Too many times we don't commit to a great swim by going after it," Quick said. "We get worried about dying. You just can't swim fast going slow."
At 1,000 meters Evans was more than four seconds ahead of the pace Kim Linehan had swum when she set the record of 16:04.49 in 1979. Evans's nearest competitor, Kim Brown, was 15 meters behind, and only the crowd was left to push Janet home. Louder and louder came the encouraging shouts, and for the last 150 meters, swimmers, coaches and fans were on their feet, whistling, screaming and waving towels, turning the Clovis West High swim complex into a giant noisemaker. Evans picked up her furious pace in the last 100 meters and touched the wall in 16:00.73, 3.76 seconds faster than the old record. "She was marvelous," said Matt Biondi, who holds world marks in the 50 and 100 frees. "Her tempo is as fast as mine is in the 50, and she goes for 1,500 meters."
"American swimming has a right to be excited about what happened here," said Quick. In particular, the American women, who floundered at the world championships last summer in Madrid, needed a booster shot like Evans's. When Betsy Mitchell and Mary T. Meagher, the two pillars of U.S. women's swimming, ran into each other shortly after Evans's spectacular 800, Meagher put her hands together, as if in prayer, and said simply, "Thank God."
Said Mitchell later, "We were getting sick of being such rare birds."
The latest rara avis, Evans, will be a junior at El Dorado High. She turns 16 in three weeks and hopes to get her driver's license shortly after she returns from next week's Pan Pacific meet in Brisbane, Australia. (The first- and second-place finishers at the nationals earned trips to Brisbane. Third- and fourth-place finishers headed for the Pan Am Games in Indianapolis.)
Evans is but 5'4" tall and weighs 95 pounds, and it is the diminutive size for a swimmer of such prowess that attracts everyone's attention. Not since 13-year-old Donna de Varona broke the world record in the 400 IM in 1960 has such a little swimmer made such a big splash. Evans is a natural water sprite whose mother, Barbara, recalls her swimming laps at the Y as a two-year-old. Barbara says Janet would finish swimming and get out of the pool for a bottle and a change of diapers.
Evans now competes for the Fullerton Aquatics Swim Team (or FAST, of course). Her coach, Bud McAllister, says, "She loves to swim." Her mom adds, "I think she would crawl to practice if I didn't take her."