Coming home from swim meets with a bagful of medals is nothing new to Janet Evans. She has been doing it since she was 10. Nor is she unaccustomed to dealing with the media. At 17 she's an old hand at that. But nothing in her experience had prepared her for the tidal wave of attention that engulfed her upon her return from Seoul.
Janet was determined to treat the Olympics, in which she won three individual gold medals (400 free, 800 free and 400 individual medley), as just another meet. Her plan was to arrive surreptitiously at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday, Sept. 26, drive straight home to Placentia, Calif., rest on Tuesday, return to classes at El Dorado High on Wednesday and, in short order, slip quietly into the routine of a normal high school senior. She would be "just Janet" again, if it killed her. She would hang out with her girlfriends, study with her boyfriend, catch up on the school work she had missed, and in a couple of weeks resume her training routine at the Independence Park Pool in nearby Fullerton.
The first glitch in Operation Just Janet was the presence of the media at the airport. She thought no one knew when she was returning, but when she stepped off United Flight 90 from Tokyo at 1:15 in the afternoon, she was greeted by three television cameras and a handful of reporters and photographers. Escorted by a burly uniformed security guard, she smiled, waved once and approached the TV crews waiting for her at the head of a long ramp, lights on and microphones at the ready. To their amazement, Janet walked right past the cameras, head down and moving fast toward the nearest exit.
Naturally, the crews followed her, lugging their minicams and cables. They were on the verge of losing sight of their quarry when John Marshall, a newsman 'for KNBC-TV, resorted to the oldest ploy in the journalist's manual. "The best way to get rid of us, Janet, is to stop and talk for a minute," he called after her. It worked.
She suddenly dropped the rock-star act and became a schoolgirl again, the same one who had delighted television audiences from Korea to Kansas with her big smile, her happy giggle and her lion-sized heart. She stopped, faced the lights and the cameras and pleasantly answered questions for several minutes. She even dug around in her bag and pulled out one of the blue velvet cases that held her medals when someone asked to see them.
Janet's second surprise was a block party in front of the Evans house on Brower Street. Enterprising neighbors had organized a barbecue, complete with banners and balloons, in her honor. "None of us wanted her to come home to nothing after all that she has been through," said Sharon Holt, who lives across the street. "Janet is such a nice girl."
As the Evanses' car turned onto Brookhaven Avenue in Placentia, a police motorcycle escort joined them, and when the motorcade turned onto Brower, children from the elementary school at the end of the block fell in behind on foot and bicycle. Before long, 500 people were milling around on the street in front of No. 424, and Janet, still in her traveling clothes, was signing autographs and taking the little ones upstairs to show them her medals. "She stood there and signed autographs and smiled all the time," said Susie Buchan from next door. "Most people would just go inside." A sign on the Buchans' lawn read JANET FOR MAYOR.
The block party may have been a small-town celebration, but three gold medals made it big-town news. Between 3 p.m., when the party began, and 9 p.m., when it finally broke up under a big yellow moon, Janet did a total of nine radio and television interviews. One of them was a chat via satellite with NBC's Bryant Gumbel in Seoul.
Saying no to the media was the job of her mother, Barbara, but as long as the requests were reasonable, she rarely did. "I know they have their jobs to do," said Barbara. "The easier we make it for them, the easier it will be for us."
Therefore, when Janet stumbled downstairs in her nightshirt at 11:30 on Tuesday morning, after having slept for 13� hours, she found a reporter and a photographer waiting in the kitchen amid wilting bouquets and shrunken balloons. She retreated. Tuesday was supposed to be the day of rest, but it didn't look as if it would turn out that way. The phone had been ringing every five minutes since early morning, and the calendar was filling fast. CNN wanted to film her departure for school the next morning. The Tonight Show wanted her for Oct. 12. The White House was penciled in for sometime that same week. Disneyland was planning an appreciation day. The Fullerton Chamber of Commerce would hold a breakfast on Oct. 6. On Oct. 8 she would be grand marshal of Placentia's Heritage Days parade.