Janet Evans, the very little girl from Placentia who has recently emerged as the rising star among American women, opened the Phillips 66/U.S. Swimming Long Course National Championships Monday by taking more than two seconds off the nine-year-old world record in the 800-meter freestyle.
Tracey Wickham of Australia had set the record of 8 minutes 24.62 seconds at the Commonwealth Games in 1978. And Tiffany Cohen came close to that record with a time of 8:24.95 in winning the Olympic gold medal for the United States in 1984.
But Evans, who is 15 years old, took off on a pace to beat those times, swimming an incredible race in which every split was a personal best and the result was a time of 8:22.44 that left the rest of the field in her wake.
She had those little arms flying almost as fast on her last 100 (1:01.36) as on her first 100 (59.61).
"I could hear the crowd, yeah, so I had the feeling that I was on the (world-record) pace," Evans said. "I was surprised to be doing that, though. I thought I'd go between (8 minutes) 23 and 27."
Swimmers from all clubs lined the sides of the pool, and fans in the stands stood to whoop and whistle when they saw that she was, indeed, heading for a world record as she pushed that pace all the way.
Kim Brown of Mission Viejo, now swimming for the Mission Bay Makos, was second in a distant 8:31.98.
Never is Evans mentioned without an accompanying height and weight, and she proudly announces that she has grown, now, to 5-4 1/2 and has bulked up in the weight room to 95 pounds.
Her coach with the Fullerton Aquatics, Bud McAllister, thinks that the added muscle and strength accounted for the record--which he knew would come someday. But she's about a year ahead of the schedule he had mapped out.
"I guess we'll just reset the goals and make them faster," he said with a grin.
Evans still has the 400-meter individual medley to swim Wednesday, the 400-meter freestyle Thursday and the 1500-meter freestyle Friday.
McAllister isn't saying what kinds of times he expects in those events. Coming into this meet, he said, the goal was to break 8:30 in the 800 and qualify for the Pan Pacific team.
She did that with ease.
Evans and Brown will swim the 800 for the United States in the Pan Pacific meet in Australia next month. Andrea Hayes, who finished third, and Tami Bruce, who finished fourth, qualified for the Pan Am Games in Indianapolis.
Debbie Babashoff, who has left the Mission Viejo club to train with the Irvine Aquatics, just missed qualifying for one of the national teams on the first night of competition by finishing a close fifth.
Overshadowed by the dazzling first race was Sean Killion's American record in the men's 800-meter freestyle. Killion's 7:52.45 took a big bite out of the record of 7:58.24 set by John Mykkanen of Irvine Novaquatics in '84.
"Janet Evans with her world's record in the previous race was an inspiration to all of us," Killion said.
Killion, 19, is from Cherry Hill, N.J., and swims for the Jersey Wahoos. He'll be a sophomore at Cal this fall.
Dan Jorgensen of the Rancho Bernardo Swim Team (San Diego) was second. But Killion and Jorgensen did not earn spots on the Pan Pacific team with their finishers because the men's 800 is not an international event.
Jorgensen will be a sophomore at USC next fall.
And Janet? She'll be a junior at El Dorado High School, and she just shrugs when asked if she'll be treated any differently there now that she's a world record-holder. Finally, she concluded, "I hope not."
While the U.S. men's teams have continued to dominate the world rankings, the women have been waiting for some new stars. Evans becomes only the fifth American woman currently holding a world record.
Mary T. Meagher, who is taking this summer off before starting her training for the '88 Olympics, holds two world records in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly events. Betsy Mitchell holds the 200-meter backstroke record. And Kim Lineham has the record in the 1,500, which is not an Olympic event for women.
Evans considers the 1,500 her best event. But she's not really training for it. Not only because it's not an Olympic event, but because she has so much potential in the 400 individual medley.
As the Olympics approach, she'll start swimming the 200-meter freestyle in place of the 1,500.
Besides, McAllister said, he sees no reason to work with her on her freestyle stroke. "When I first saw her freestyle, I said, great. I figure, if it works, don't fix it.
"She has natural endurance. We're working on her speed in the freestyle, and adding muscle has helped. And we're working on her butterfly.
"I think she has great potential. As I've told everyone who has ever asked me about her, she loves to swim, she trains better and more consistently than anyone I've ever seen."
McAllister has been coaching swimming for 12 years. This was his first world record. "I just hope it's not my last," he said.
With Evans on his team, it's probably not.