It's hard to tell if Janet Evans is better at swimming or smiling, because she is world class at both. Last week her familiar grin lit up the pool at the short course national championships in Chapel Hill. N.C., her first major competition since she won three gold medals at the Seoul Olympics. Last Saturday, the final night of the five-day meet. Evans stroked through the 1,000-yard freestyle in 9:25.49, shaving almost three seconds off the American record. Earlier in the week she had easily won the 500 free and the 400 individual medley in the meet's 25-yard pool. But as good as she is, Evans, 17, is old enough to see the future gaining on her. A swimmer who once considered Evans an idol was the surprise of the meet.
Mary Ellen Blanchard, 15, a high school sophomore from Norcross, Ga., powered her way to an American-record 2:09.06 in the 200-yard breaststroke. Blanchard, who swims exceptionally high out of the water, shooting up almost to her waist on each stroke, also swam to an American-record 1:00.66 in the 100 breaststroke. Both marks bettered those set more than seven years ago by the great Tracy Caulkins. Blanchard is now the bright new star of a stroke in which the U.S. team was weak in the last two Olympics. And soon she may be better known for her swimming than for her lineage; her grandfather is Army's legendary running back Doc Blanchard.
Blanchard's and Evans's races were the highlights of a meet notable for its many post-Olympic letdowns. In all, Seoul survivors were beaten by non-Olympians in 15 events. Suriname's Anthony Nesty, who won gold in Seoul when he outtouched the U.S.'s Matt Biondi in the 100-meter butterfly, was himself outtouched in the 100-yard fly by Harvard law student Dirk Marshall. Nesty, who later won the 200 fly. said. "I came to this meet not very confident at all because I haven't been training."
Another '88 gold medalist apparently suffered a mental lapse. In the 400-yard IM, Hungary's Tamas Darnyi, who holds world records in the 200-and 400-meter IMs, was disqualified when he did a breaststroke pullout at the start of the butterfly leg of the race. Later Darnyi maintained his concentration long enough to win the 200-yard IM.
In light of how most other Olympians fared, Evans's performance was particularly impressive. Since her triumphant return from Seoul to Placentia. Calif. Evans, who holds world records in the 400-, 800-and 1,500-meter freestyles, has lived the life of a teen star. She was homecoming queen of El Dorado High, waved from a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and hobnobbed with Bob Hope and Tom Selleck at a fundraising party in L.A. for George Bush. A photo of her wearing a strapless dress and sparkling earrings for one of the presidential inaugural balls adorns the cover of Swimming World magazine (the special evening-gown issue).
Through it all she kept swimming—and smiling. "Some people think my training has suffered, and that's not true," Evans said. "I always manage to get in my 11 workouts a week." Since Seoul she has also had countless offers from corporate suitors. At first, her mother, Barbara, says, "the phone would ring immediately after we'd hung it up." But Evans has refused to cash in, because accepting endorsement fees would jeopardize her NCAA eligibility. After being wooed by numerous colleges, she has narrowed her choice to the big three in women's swimming—Florida, Texas and Stanford—and will probably announce her decision in early May.
In the meantime, there's plenty to look forward to: the senior prom: her next important meet, a California high school sectional championship in May: and graduation. Evans says she'll stay in the sport for four or five more years, but she insists that "it's too early" to talk about the '92 Games. As long as she keeps showing up for meets, though, she will continue to hear the question reporters asked her over and over last week: After three Olympic gold medals and three world records, why do you keep swimming?
"I have a lot of nationals and NCAAs to swim in," she says. "It's not hard for me to get motivated at all." Then she flashes her gold medal smile and adds with a shrug. "I just like swimming."