Janet Evans embracing the comeback whirlwind
LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. -- Janet Evans walks out to greet her second interviewer of the day with her face still made up and television-ready. A CNN crew has just vacated her living room after filming a segment on women's health, set up by her corporate sponsors at Procter & Gamble; bagels and coffee procured for the shoot sit on the kitchen island.
It's 1:30 p.m. Her 5-year-old daughter, Sydney, and 2-year-old son, Jake, romp under brilliant sunshine in the postage-stamp yard in front of the family's remodeled 1930s cottage that is a quick walk from the cliffs that give way to the Pacific Ocean. A neighbor who is running for public office has stopped by with a photo for her to sign; his dog wags at the end of a leash. He wants Evans to write something that will needle a friend.
"How mean can you be?" he asks her. She shakes her head, flashes that broad smile that launched a thousand motor drives, writes the message he requests and adds "Just kidding" at the end.
And then it's time to go. She hugs the kids and thanks the nanny who comes in two days a week. Evans needs to arrive at practice early on this afternoon, where she'll swim more than 6,000 meters -- an abbreviated workout -- part solo and part with her high school-age training partners at the Golden West club in Huntington Beach.
On the way up, piloting her black BMW through light traffic, she calls her mother and reminds her to bring one of her Olympic gold medals to the house later today; Evans will be taking it along to New York for a show-and-tell at a safe-swimming clinic. She checks in with her husband, Billy Willson, and promises to pick up fish tacos they can scarf for dinner before they leave for LAX, where they're booked on a red-eye to the East Coast.
One of history's greatest distance swimmers is sprinting through her days with a certain controlled urgency, knowing there may never be another juncture in her life where her passions dovetail so neatly.
"I actually wish there were more hours in the day," she says. "I'm not saying I would sleep during those hours, but just wish there were more hours.
"The greatest part about being an Olympic champion is being able to share it with other people. I really believe that, and I've come to believe it more as I've grown older. It gives you a nice platform and it's fun to have a platform where I feel I can make a difference. And it's with a different group, right? It's with moms now, and women in their 40s."
Evans has several weeks of heavy training left before what she says will be the final taper of her competitive life. She's racing the 800-meter freestyle Wednesday and 400 freestyle Thursday at the Fran Crippen Swim Meet of Champions hosted by the Mission Viejo (Calif.) Nadadores club [Editor's update: Evans finished second in the race]. The meet is one of just two she plans to enter before the Olympic trials, which begin June 25 in Omaha. (The other is in Irvine, Calif., next month.)
Because of where she is in her training block, the 40-year-old said she doesn't expect to swim too much faster at those meets than she did at the Austin Grand Prix in January -- when she easily qualified for the trials -- but she'll try. Ideally, she'd like to be in a fast heat in Omaha to push the fitness she's regained over the past year and a half to its utmost.
"I think I'm swimming better and getting faster every week, and Mark [Schubert, her coach] would tell you the same thing," she says. "Sometimes I wish I had more time to build my base, but Billy always says, 'If you had started earlier, you would be so tired. You wouldn't have made it longer than this.'
"There have definitely been sacrifices I've made. I will say I enjoy my time with the kids more, because I respect and appreciate it more."
Evans has been living at such a throttled-up pace that even the compulsive multitasker in her admits it is impossible to sustain indefinitely, shoehorning old and new sponsor commitments and speaking engagements between training and family life.
She believes she is more valuable as a corporate spokesman now than she was 20 years ago as a teenage sweetheart and medal favorite.
"I think that moms kind of rule the marketplace these days," Evans says. "Healthy, fit moms. They make most of the purchasing decisions. I know I do in my family."
She keeps a list of the out-of-town pools where she's trained since her comeback began in late 2010 (it's at 40 and counting), but she intends to curtail her travel in May and June as the trials approach.
And after that? Her young Golden West teammates are pleading with her to swim summer nationals, but Evans says she isn't biting. "I always knew it had to be finite, there had to be a hard stop to it," she says. She needs to leave behind the 4:20 a.m. wake-up calls and tedious whereabouts paperwork for the drug testers, a task that makes her bolt upright in bed when she fears she's forgotten an update. She wants to get Sydney into the tennis and karate lessons she's been asking for. She wants to add to the list of 65 countries she and her husband have visited.
After practice, Evans slides behind the steering wheel of her car, hair still damp. She stops for tacos on the way home and eats with her kids at the dining room table, running her hands through their hair as they take turns cuddling up with her. Sydney and Jake soon scurry away to dance in Sydney's bedroom. Billy packs and talks on the phone simultaneously.
Paul and Barbara Evans arrive at 6:30 p.m. to pick up their grandkids for the weekend. Evans will sleep on the plane and go directly upon landing to Asphalt Green, a fitness complex on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with a 50-meter pool. She'll swim another two hours and head to the clinic she's conducting with friend and fellow Olympic champion Rowdy Gaines.
Evans and her husband have a vacation booked in November, but that still seems very far away.
"I'll miss a lot of it, the idea of it, the feel-good parts of it," she says of her comeback. "I won't miss the early mornings. You look at Ian Thorpe, who says he's going to do it again ... why wouldn't you? He doesn't have children. He has no one to answer to but himself. If he still likes it and feels like he can have some skin in the game, I get it.
"Part of the reason I went back was because I wanted to feel challenged and that I'd done something," Evans says. "That's just who I am. The knowledge that I did that gives me a lot of contentment."