Janet was not happy with the way things were going. Aaron Behle, her boyfriend, was having a hard time dealing with her celebrity. She was sympathetic. "It's embarrassing for him," she said. Janet was also apprehensive about going back to school. "I know my friends will treat me normally," she said, "but I wish everybody would." At one point on Tuesday afternoon, she jumped to her feet, grabbed the waistband of the red miniskirt she was wearing and spun it around where her hips ought to be. "My skirt is so loose, I'm afraid to weigh myself," she said.
"She was very homesick," said her father, Paul, a veterinarian. "She's been away since early August, and there's been a lot of pressure and tension. Her mother worries about her health. Janet made me promise not to tell her mother that she's lost weight. She should weigh 105. But she'll gain it back, if she doesn't burn it up first. She has a high metabolism and no tolerance for sitting."
Neither the food nor the accommodations in Seoul were to Janet's liking. "I'd sit in my room in the [athletes'] village—no carpet, the beds were hard, the sheets were like paper," she said, shuddering. "I slept on my towel every night, and the whole city smells like kimchi. I'd think about home, and it felt like the day would never come."
On Wednesday, Operation Just Janet broke down completely. The administrators at El Dorado High had planned to give her two days to settle in before holding a special assembly, which would be open to the press, for her on Friday. The student council, composed of Janet's best friends and led by Behle, who is both student body president and winner of the school's Mr. GQ contest ("talent, looks and poise"), had reluctantly agreed to the plan. It was the council's sworn mission to shield Janet from anything it deemed to be not "normal."
But the school's administrators, swamped with requests from the press for access to Janet on her first day back, succumbed to the pressure and scheduled two-minute photo sessions to take place during her first-period senior honors English class. They also granted the media permission to film and interview at will during her lunch period in an area known as senior quad. Problems arose when the administrators neglected to tell her student council protectors about the change in plans.
The English class was a failure from everybody's point of view. As students discussed a brief writing assignment, ''Me at 35," which had been designed to accustom seniors, who would soon be tackling college-application essays, to writing about themselves, a steady stream of strange adults shuttled in and out of the room. Janet, second row from the right, third desk back, watched the absurd parade in wide-eyed wonder.
But if first period was absurd, lunch-time was surreal. The students, urged on by their student council leaders, who thought they had been betrayed by the administration, took their revenge on the 30 or so press people who showed up. Girls stood in front of photographers to block their shots, and boys shouted. "Leave her alone." When a school security guard known as Rambo chased a photographer from a low wall, where he had been shooting Janet surrounded by her friends, the crowd erupted into cheers of approval.
Through it all, Janet looked as though she wished she were back in Seoul, kimchi or no kimchi. She sat staring at the ground, pale and close to tears. The two sides of her world, which she had always been able to keep separate, at least in her own mind, had finally collided.
Later that day, she sat at a corner table in a shopping-center pizza parlor and looked back on the events of the morning. "Every time I say I want to be like everybody else, somebody says, 'Well, you're not going to be,' " she said. "I realize that now. I'm not going to be like everybody else. It finally hit me. I just won't. It's like I know I won't be but somehow still wish I could be." Epiphanies sometimes occur when and where they are least expected, even in pizza parlors on September afternoons.
"Up till now she has learned to deal with everything at swimming meets and around swimming people." said Barbara. "It's been really difficult for her at school. This week has been a big step in the direction of dealing with it in front of her nonswimming peers."