OMAHA, Neb. -- The cheering went up spontaneously and had a resonance familiar to anyone who loves sports. It was the sound of a knowledgeable crowd's appreciation for someone who doesn't need to be announced.
In this case, it was the swimmer in Lane 2 of Heat 6 of the women's 400-meter freestyle preliminaries, a swimmer with an unremarkable qualifying time of 4:17.27 -- unremarkable, that is, unless you knew it was 40-year-old Janet Evans. Eight of the other nine swimmers in her heat were less than half her age and thus closer generationally to her 5-year-old daughter, Sydney, than they are to her.
As Evans adjusted her goggles and plain black cap, some spectators in the less-than-half-full CenturyLink Center rose to their feet. The applause swelled and then ebbed as the swimmers got into the blocks.
"It was so sweet," Evans said. "I was like, 'Gosh, I hope the other girls in this heat are OK with all this stuff.'"
Evans dove in knowing she had no chance to make the Olympic team, or even come close to advancing to Tuesday night's eight-woman final. But she was hoping for a better result than what she got: 4:21.49, seventh in the heat and 80th overall in a field of 113.
"I wish I would have gone faster," said Evans, who admitted to some nerves. "It didn't feel very good. It was nice to get the jitters out. I think that my 800 will be better. ... It was definitely a warm-up for [Saturday's] 800.
"It was just a very different mental game coming into this meet, just swimming to swim. Does that make sense? I'm so used to swimming for a purpose, and just to be here to enjoy it, it was very different emotionally for me. I'm not saying it was better or worse."
Evans was speaking to a group of reporters that included a few, such as USA Today's Christine Brennan and Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune, who have known her for 25 years. (I'm a mere piker by comparison, having met her in 1995.) The mother of two doled out hugs and smiled easily.
She warmed down, then happily granted a request for more conversation. And that's what it is with Evans -- a conversation, not sound bites or talking points or guarded remarks about her goals. If only all great athletes could be as at home in their own skins as Evans, both back in her heyday and now. One of the great frustrations of sportswriting is we so rarely get a glimpse of that until after they retire.
Or when they come back. Evans' longtime coach and former national team director Mark Schubert joined the small interview group and repeated what he's said every time the subject comes up: Evans has been holding down three full-time jobs, as mom, motivational speaker and swimmer, going on two years now. Building an endurance base, let alone competing, was an enormous challenge.
"The more racing she does, the better she can do," Schubert said. "It's hard to get in enough quality competition."
But don't get any ideas. "I think we have an agreement," the coach said, looking at Evans with open affection and respect. "The project is over. But boy, has it been a blast."
Evans' parents are here, as they always were, but this time they have Sydney and 3-year-old Jake in tow. Her husband, Billy Willson, arrives later this week. He asked her the other day what crazy notion she might have next.
It's hard to imagine she could attempt anything more gutsy. About 20 minutes after Evans had passed through the media interview zone, a 14-year-old from Clearwater, Fla., named Becca Mann qualified for the eighth and last slot in Tuesday night's 400 freestyle finals with a 4:10.38.
When Evans climbed out of the pool, the fans responded with the same warmth as they did at the start. The digital readout was irrelevant. It was the closest swimming ever gets to timeless.
"Afterwards, it was really lovely," Evans said. "It reminded me of my 800 in Atlanta when I got sixth and it didn't really matter, because everyone just cheered."