Evans proves she's tall on talent
Pinnacle (Tempe, Ariz.) junior Ashley Evans hears the snickers. She notices the stares. Every sarcastic chuckle, every sneering face and every rolling eye tell the same story.
Her opponents are critiquing her. They're disregarding her. They're mocking her. Little do they know they're all about to be taught a lesson.
When the 5-foot-3 Evans toes the starting block, her head barely reaches the shoulders of her competitors. Her arms hang much shorter and her muscles aren't nearly as pronounced.
But none of that matters once they're in the pool. That's where Evans has the advantage. That's where she's in her element.
Within seconds, Evans leaves all the doubters behind. She pulls farther and farther ahead. She even laps some people. Eventually she stands on the podium and accepts yet another gold medal while her critics can't do anything but watch.
"People judge me and the way I can swim because of my height," Evans says. "A lot of people don't take me seriously. People look at me and think, 'She can't be fast because she's only 5-3.' I don't worry too much about them anymore. I used to care. Now it's like, 'Wait until I swim and you'll shut up.'"
Evans has quieted every hater over the years, becoming one of the nation's best swimmers even if she doesn't have a prototypical swimmer's body. At the 2007 Junior National Championships, Evans set meet records while taking gold in both the 400- and 800-meter freestyle.
She's been just as dominant on the local level, capturing back-to-back Class 5A, Division II state titles in both the 200- and 500-yard freestyle as a sophomore and junior, setting a state record in the 500 with a time of 4:42.61 as a sophomore. She was also part of two state champion relay teams each of the past two years and led Pinnacle to the team state title both years as well.
"She's just this tiny little thing, but when she gets in the water she glides," says Pinnacle coach Jodi LaMell. "You don't think she's going to beat you, but then she gets in the water."
Evans enjoys proving her doubters wrong. But that's not what makes her tick. She has lofty goals, many of which she's already achieved -- and none bigger than qualifying for the Olympic Trials.
Evans competed in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle races in addition to the 200 butterfly at the 2008 Trials. She failed to make the finals in any event but learned invaluable lessons along the way.
"Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to go to the Olympic Trials, but I never thought I would make it," Evans says. "I didn't do as well as I had hoped, but the experience was phenomenal. I think watching all of the swimmers being tapered and then watching them swim their best races was such an important lesson."
She even had her own moment of fame -- or infamy -- while at the Trials. Evans was down on herself after failing to advance, so she decided to blow off some steam with her friend/competitor, former Desert Mountain swimmer Whitney Lopus, by indulging in some Dippin' Dots.
Unbeknownst to them, a camera honed in on the duo. The picture was put up on the big screen at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb., and the friends were caught in the act.
"I was really embarrassed," Evans says. "When they put us on the big screen we were being pigs. My friends started texting me and a bunch of people saw us on the Internet and told us about it. It was funny afterward, but it was really embarrassing at the time. I'm sure my face turned bright red."
One embarrassing moment like that won't become Evans' legacy. She's far too talented, a fact she's known ever since starting to swim competitively as a 6-year-old.
"I was a record-holder when I was 6, so I guess I was pretty good," she says. "That's when I realized I had natural talent."
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The record was in the 25-yard freestyle, and Evans still has the time and blue ribbon pinned on her bulletin board. Time: 27.25 seconds. Record: still intact.
"That was the best feeling I ever had at the time," Evans says. "After that I told my parents that I wanted to swim year round."
Evans' longtime dedication paid off when she was selected to swim for the U.S. National Junior Team at the Victorian Championships in Australia last January.
Calling the selection "the proudest moment of my life," she came home with memories and medals after winning the 1,500-meter freestyle and helping the 800 free relay squad take gold.
"It was so rewarding," Evans says. "Getting to represent the U.S. with the most amazing junior swimmers in the world was amazing. I was so proud to be a part of it."
The experience motivated Evans and reinforced her biggest goal - to qualify for the Olympics. "I think 2012 might be my year," she says. "It's just a voice in my head that says I know I can do it."
That's why she dedicates most mornings and nights to her craft, working hard to nullify the disadvantages of her height. The turns taller swimmers make easily, for instance, Evans struggles with. So oftentimes she'll stay after practice and work on turns for up to 30 minutes.
"Most of the girls she races against are a lot taller than she is and they have a lot more strength because of their size," LaMell says. "But that's why it's so shocking. She will lap those people."
Of course, Evans doesn't look at her height as a deficiency, even if other people do.
When doubters roll their eyes, Evans visualizes the race. When they snicker, she stretches. And when they finish the race, she's already toweling off.
Finally, the doubters are silent.
Brian A. Giuffra covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.
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