"Get it going, Janet, get it going!" Barbara Evans yelled on Thursday as her daughter churned through the first 200 meters of the Olympic women's 400-meter freestyle at Seoul's Olympic Indoor Swimming Pool. "You're not far enough ahead. Come on, Janet!"
All across the U. S., from Shillington, Pa., where Janet Evans's paternal grandfather watched her on TV, to her hometown of Placentia, Calif., where her maternal grandmother, as well as her El Dorado High schoolmates, tuned in, America cheered for its favorite water bug: "Come on, Janet!" Kristin Otto of East Germany and Matt Biondi of the U.S. would win more medals at this Olympics, but no one would win more hearts than the affable Evans.
As Evans and Heike Friedrich of East Germany came out of the turn at the halfway point, Friedrich, the Olympic women's 200 free champ, trailed by .35 of a second but was finding fifth gear. With 300 meters to go, she had cut that lead to .16. This was certainly where the bigger, stronger Friedrich would put Evans away. But the skinny little arms that had propelled Evans to five world records in the preceding 13 months began to circle furiously. "Coming down the stretch, I was thinking what I always think: Put your head down and go as fast as you can," Evans said after the race.
With 20 meters to go, Evans was 1� lengths ahead, and up in the stands her father, Paul, turned to Barbara and exclaimed, "She's got it!" Janet, her head down, chugged into the wall like the little engine that could. She hit the touch pad and looked up at the scoreboard. Her mouth dropped in shock when she saw 4:03.85. "I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me," Evans said. "Four-oh-three, no way!"
Every way. Evans, 17, had sliced, diced and julienned 1.6 seconds off the world record she had set at the U.S. Open in Orlando, Fla., in December. "It was a magic moment," said Paul Bergen, an Olympic coach for Canada.
If Evans's first gold medal, won on Sept. 19 in the 400 individual medley, had been for the car that her parents had promised her if she won any event, and the second gold—in the 400 free—had been for the world record, then the third was for posterity. By swimming an Olympic record 8:20.20 in the 800 free, Evans became the fifth woman to win three or more individual swimming gold medals at one Olympics.
Although Evans was more than three seconds slower than her world record in the 800, she had swum 3,200 very competitive meters—including 1,600 meters of qualifying heats—to win her three golds. By contrast, Biondi swam 1,300 meters to win his seven medals, Otto swam 900 to win her six.
Evans was the bright spot for the U.S. women swimmers. She was the only American woman to win an individual gold; two of her teammates, Mary T. Meagher in the 200 fly and Jill Sterkel in the 50 free got bronzes. And she beamed and bubbled and giggled with delight at winning. "I'm smiling because I'm having fun," Evans said. "That's what this is all about, to have fun."
Evans is 5'5�" and weighs 102 pounds. When she stepped up on the blocks for the 800 freestyle, the 6'1", 180-pound Astrid Strauss was on her right and the 5'10", 150-pound Anke Moehring was on her left. Evans looked like an age-group swimmer who had somehow stumbled into the wrong race.
Her size used to leave other elite swimmers laughing. Last week Evans proved even better at making people smile. She was a marvel with the press: fresh, direct, effervescent.