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SWIMMING FOR GOLD : Janet Evans, Only 16, Already Holds 3 World Records

Times Staff Writer

She had started before sunup, swimming in the cool of the morning under the lights at Independence Park Pool in Fullerton, and she was still at it as her teammates finished their workouts and pulled themselves up onto the deck.

As the members of the Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team picked up their gear and headed for the gate, they kept an eye on their celebrated teammate who was still working steadily, up and down in that first lane that she always has to herself. They asked Coach Bud McAllister how she was doing; how many more she had to go.

McAllister checked his notebook and assured them that she was almost there.

It takes awhile to swim 20 straight 400-meter individual medleys. Even Janet Evans needs a couple of hours to do that.

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A 400-meter individual medley is 100 meters of butterfly, followed by 100 meters of backstroke, followed by 100 meters of breaststroke, followed by 100 meters of freestyle.

The decathlon of swimming.

She was doing that repetition 20 times. That makes 8,000 meters. About five miles.

And it was her idea.

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McAllister, coach of the FAST team, doesn’t get workout requests like that too often. In fact, as he had paced back and forth on the deck, checking his stopwatch and telling his swimmers their times in the final stages of the morning workout, he had had to turn a deaf ear to a lot of grousing about workouts that were too long.

He also had to coddle and cajole a couple of his swimmers to finish. One guy complained that he was going to die.

“Really?” McAllister asked evenly. “Got anything valuable you can leave me?”

Janet Evans was the last one out of the pool. Noting that the sun had come up, she said “Good morning!” to the folks on the deck. But she said nothing about dying.

McAllister later reported: “Her time on the last 400 was good enough to qualify for senior nationals.”

Which means that Evans can swim nonstop for two hours and have enough left to finish as fast as a lot of the top swimmers can race.

And she can come up smiling.

Janet Evans holds three world records--in the 1500-meter freestyle, the 800-meter freestyle and the 400-meter freestyle. When she set those records last year, the ones she beat were the oldest on the books.

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She is the first woman to hold three world swimming records at one time since Kornelia Ender of East Germany did it in 1976, the year the muscular East German women came to Montreal and swept the Olympic gold away from the Americans.

The last American woman to hold three world records was Debbie Meyer, and she held four. But that was 20 years ago.

Evans hadn’t even been born then. She’s just 16. She’ll be 17 when the 1988 Olympic Games are held in Seoul in September.

By that time, she may hold four world records. She’s working on her 400-meter individual medley, you know.

With a two-hour nap separating the moment from that 8,000-meter morning workout, Evans was ready to face another reporter wanting her to talk about her world records and her chances for Olympic gold.

She curled up on a couch in her family’s home in Placentia, hugged a pillow to her chest in what is coming to be known as her interview pose, and dived in.

“I don’t know whether I’d say I’m aiming for a world record in the 400 IM, like a big goal,” she said. “Any time I swim, I’m aiming for the best I can do. In the 400 IM, I’m so close to the American record, I’m thinking, ‘Why not go for it?’ ”

Sure, why not?

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Evans is so young, so small--5-6, not quite 100 pounds--and so disarmingly matter of fact in the way she reacts to her records and her fame, that it sometimes seems that she’s missing the big picture. Maybe she doesn’t know what she’s done. Maybe what would appear to be a healthy perspective is actually naivete.

Given a nudge, though, she shows that she’s put a lot of thought into this.

“Sometimes I do stop and think about what it means to hold a world record, to be able to do something better than anyone else in the world has ever done it, and I wonder why me? It boggles my mind. The more you think about it, the more it boggles,” she said.

“I mean, I’m just Janet. We joke about that. Just Janet. My mom’s been calling me Just Janet. But I’m the same person I was before I swam that fast. I’m the student at El Dorado High School with a French test the next day.

“Then somebody like Jeff Kostoff (a distance swimmer from Stanford) will come up to me and start in with his deep-thinking stuff.”

Evans takes on a very serious look and scholarly tone as she lowers her voice: “Janet, do you realize that with the time you just swam you would have won every Olympic Games ever held? Do you realize the great swimmers who never accomplished what you just accomplished . . . “

Evans throws her hands up in a gesture of surrender.

“To me, that’s kind of overwhelming,” she said. “I’ve worked hard, very hard, to make these things happen. But there was some luck, too. And natural talent. My family. Lots of things.

“But there have been other people who worked hard, too, who didn’t set world records. Why does it work for me? If you try to get real philosophical, it just seems more and more mind boggling.

“To tell you the truth, I try not to think about it.”

Not now, anyway. There’s too much to do now.

Besides swimming miles and miles twice a day, working out with light weights a couple of times a week, sleeping 9 or 10 hours of every 24-hour period and trying, somehow, to find time for shopping and lunch with friends, Janet Evans is finding herself in the eye of a media hurricane as she prepares for the Olympic trials at the University of Texas in August and then the Olympic Games in Seoul.

Her mother, Barbara, is dedicating almost full time to the job of playing press agent. And it is a full-time job. The calendar book she carries with her has a newspaper reporter or photographer, or a TV crew, or even an overseas correspondent, or a combination, scheduled every day until July 15, the day that U.S. Swimming has set as the deadline for interviews with the Olympic candidates.

Janet has drawn a smiling face on July 15 in her mother’s calendar book.

Actually, Janet is pretty good with the media. She’s relaxed and confident. Not much rattles her. But she did get just a little testy a couple of weeks ago during a meet at Mission Viejo. Sports Illustrated had a reporter there. And Newsweek. And several newspapers.

At one point, she sat down to talk to newspaper reporters only to discover that Prime Ticket was filming her interview with them while ABC was filming Prime Ticket filming her.

She tolerated the film crew in her bathroom while she brushed her teeth, but she got a little brusque when the camera came within inches of her face while she was having a private conversation with friends at the meet one morning.

By lunchtime, she was her old, charming self again. Janet wasn’t raised to be anything but polite and charming.

It is her family that helps her keep all the craziness in check. There’s a stability there that keeps her anchored, keeps her from floating adrift.

The Evans family has lived in the same house all of Janet’s life. Her father, Paul, has his veterinary practice just down the street and around the corner. Her older brothers, David and John, now both away at college, were involved in the community swim programs from the time they were old enough to join. Their mother always was there for them.

Their mother used to take the baby along to their lessons.

Barbara Evans said: “Janet used to just throw a fit to get in the water. She loved the water. I finally convinced the instructor to give Janet lessons even though she was only 13 or 14 months old. That’s when she started swimming.

“Janet doesn’t expect anybody to believe that. When we were out at that Amateur Athletic Foundation ceremony (to dedicate the start of the season’s swim programs) Janet was talking to a bunch of 4- and 5-year old kids. So she told them she started swimming when she was 4.

“But she was just over a year old. She just loved the water. She was the kind of baby that even liked to get her hair washed. She never minded water in her face. I don’t know what that means in terms of world records. I’m just saying that I could never keep that little baby out of the water.”

Janet was on a team and competing in Orange County Swim Conference meets by the time she was 5. Her coach, Walter Druff, took an interest in her and coached her as a serious swimmer from the start.

She was always setting age-group records. Her record in the 200-meter freestyle still stands.

When she was 11, she convinced her parents to take her to the national junior met in Brown Deer, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb.

Barbara said: “We never really pushed her. We wouldn’t have encouraged her to go to that meet, but she wanted to go. We flew to Chicago, spent the night at the Ritz Carlton, did some shopping, and went to Milwaukee for the day. It wasn’t a big pressure kind of a thing. She didn’t win, but she had a good time. I think she dropped 7 seconds. She was happy.”

The next year, at 12, she won a national junior title. And the next year she graduated to senior nationals.

Janet was 15 when Mark Schubert left Mission Viejo for the Mission Bay club in Florida and her coach then with the Fullerton club, Martin Craig, went to Mission Viejo as an assistant. The family chose not to switch from Fullerton to Mission Viejo.

“Janet wanted to stay with her coach, of course, but we wanted to look at everything,” Mrs. Evans said. “We didn’t want to sell our house. Paul’s practice has always been right here. We weren’t going to let Janet go and live with another family.

“One alternative was for me to take a condo down there and live with her down there. I didn’t like that idea. I also didn’t like the idea of driving that far every day, twice a day.

“We convinced her to try the new coach. Bud McAllister was coming in from the club at Coronado. Thank goodness she liked him right away.”

And he liked her. His first impression was that she was going to be a great swimmer. But he had no way of knowing that within a few years, she would blossom into something quite so special.

She was always so little.

It makes for a good story to say that the Soviet swimmers laughed at Janet Evans when she walked out onto the pool deck for the Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986. Because no one in Europe is laughing now.

Or to say that Olympic gold medalist Tiffany Cohen openly snickered when she first saw Janet heading for the blocks at the Phillips 66-U.S. Swimming Long Course National Championships in 1985, because Janet eventually beat Tiffany, too.

People really did point out and marvel at the tiny little girl in the big meets.

But the fact is that when Evans saw an old photograph of herself, taken about three years ago, she laughed, too. Even her mother laughed.

Little Janet was quite a sight back in those days. In August of ’85, when she was not quite 14, Janet was 5-1, weighed 87 pounds and seemed to be all spindly legs and arms. With braces on her teeth.

She looked anything but intimidating. Cute, not cutthroat.

Once she got in the water, it was even more of a spectacle. Those spindly arms and legs would go churning through the water a mile a minute--propelling her forward at an amazing pace.

She has grown up a lot in the last three years.

“She’s getting close to reaching her potential,” McAllister said. “She’s not there yet. But the improvements she’s made in the last year are so phenomenal, she can’t continue to make those kinds of improvements. It’s going to have to level off.”

Asked if she would then be left to work on the mechanics of her stroke, McAllister said, “That would be like Mike Tyson taking steroids. What for?”

All it takes is one look at her mother and her father, and it is obvious that Janet is not destined to be a large person. “She might be to 90% or 95% of her size and strength,” McAllister said. “There might be a little bit more. But she’s never going to be big.”

When Janet was wowing her way through the age-group records, her mother always thought that, eventually, she would run into girls so much bigger she wouldn’t have a chance. That has never happened.

And then there were the experts who surmised that when she was no longer a tiny little girl, when her body changed and she did get bigger and stronger, her stroke would change, too, and she would lose her efficiency. That never happened, either.

McAllister explains that although her stroke might look different, it really isn’t.

“Her freestyle stroke is just natural,” he said. “It just looked a little strange because she had to turn it over so fast. At the World trials in 1986, she was taking approximately 62 strokes of freestyle per 50-meter length of the pool. Now it’s about 52, now that she’s gotten bigger and stronger.

“People who haven’t seen her for a while comment, ‘What have you done to her stroke?’ Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s a natural stroke.”

McAllister has worked with Janet on her butterfly, though, the one stroke that has always given her trouble.

She has never had trouble, though, with motivation or stamina.

“Her other most important thing is her attitude toward training,” McAllister said. “You have to keep pushing yourself to go faster in training. Physically, she’s got to be something special. I don’t have the (scientific) background to talk about it, technically, to try to explain it. But she can recover faster in between sets, faster in between workouts, than any swimmer I’ve ever seen. . . .

“She has the capacity to do work; huge sets with very short rests, and she just keeps going. Most swimmers can’t handle that physical stress. The younger, age-group swimmers, can often do it, but not the older ones. Younger kids are more resilient. They bounce back. She has that same kind of body.

“I give my swimmers the day off on Sunday and most swimmers come back better on Monday, but not always. For Janet, Monday is always her best day of training. After that one day off, she’s back, fresh, the way she was the previous Monday. Totally recovered.

“It’s also her life style, which helps. She gets more rest and she eats better. Too many of the swimmers try to do it all. Even if they get 7 or 8 hours, that’s not enough. For every hour of exercise, you need an extra hour of sleep. So most swimmers need about 10 hours of sleep. She probably gets that. Most swimmers don’t.”

When she’s getting up at 5, that means going to bed at 7. Janet usually gets a nap during the day and goes to bed by 8 or 9.

That doesn’t leave much time for socializing, but Janet makes allowances for special occasions. Last May, after she had set two national high school records in the Southern Section meet--in the 500-yard freestyle and the 200-yard individual medley--she changed into a formal gown in the locker room at the Belmont Plaza pool in Long Beach and went to the junior-senior prom.

McAllister had no objections. Evans knows what she’s doing. She won’t take any more time off than she really has to. As she explained: “Every missed workout is a workout you’ll never, in all your life, have the chance to make up.”

McAllister said: “Janet likes to be challenged. . . . I know she’s always going to work hard. She’ll tell me what she can do and I’ll stand there and time her and she’ll be right on it. An athlete like Janet knows her body better than anyone. She asks me to help her set her goals, but she tells me how she feels, physically. And she keeps asking for me.

“I look at some workouts that I had her do last year, and they’d be warmups for her now. She’s going so much longer and so much faster. What she’s done in the last year and a half is amazing. I’ve written some articles for coaching publications, so I’ve carefully researched what she was doing and what she is doing.

“Oh, yeah, I’m documenting everything now. I started keeping exact records last February of everything she’s doing. I’m in the process of writing now.

“After she did that 4:05 (world record in the 400-meter freestyle) I said, ‘Geez, I’m going to have to start seeing what she can do.’ I was working her hard, but I’ve been working her even harder. I’ve told some coaches the sets she’s been doing and I had one stand there and tell me that he didn’t believe those times. I said, ‘You’re right, now she’s going even faster.’ ”

Janet Evans has a lot of pressure on her to bring home the gold this October. McAllister has the same pressure to see that she does. But he says that they both thrive on it.

“She’s the best I’ve ever seen at responding to pressure,” McAllister said. “That’s the way I feel about it. I think of the Olympics and I say to myself, ‘I can’t wait.’

“I picture what she’s going to do, and it’s all good.”

Evans is expected to enter five events at the Olympic trials--the 800-, 400- and 200-meter freestyles and the 400- and 200-meter individual medleys. She plans to compete in just three at the Games--the 800- and 400-meter freestyles and the 400-meter individual medley.

“She’s a freestyler first and an IMer second,” McAllister said. “Her butterfly is a weak stroke. . . . She might soon consider working on the 200 freestyle for the future.

“If she continues to have fun and stay hungry, she’ll still be at a good age for the Olympics in 1992. But that’s too far away to think about now. I’m not adding it this summer because we don’t want to do too much. Over a five-day or six-day meet, I don’t want to add another event.”

It would be nice for Evans to be able to go to Korea with world records in all three of the events she plans to swim. She already has them in the 400, 4:04.45, and the 800, 8:17.12, and she will be taking a good shot at the 400 individual medley when she gets into the fast water at the University of Texas Natatorium. Her best time is 3.65 seconds off the world record, a huge drop for anyone but her. It’s not unusual for her to drop five or six seconds from one taper to the next.

“I think the trials will be incredible,” McAllister said. “The pool is good. We’ll still be at home. Everyone will be rested. The competition will be the best. The importance of the meet--I’m just smiling and waiting.”

But it would seem to be putting a lot of pressure on a 16-year-old.

Not to worry, her mother says: “She has an amazing ability to concentrate and focus on whatever is the task at hand. She can set a world record and go back to the hotel and go right to sleep.”

McAllister points out that she competed against Soviets and East Germans in the Goodwill Games and that she has competed against the best all around the world. She is best under pressure, he keeps insisting.

“She’s the kind of swimmer who won’t be too concerned about times, but she doesn’t want to lose the race,” McAllister said. “She’ll respond.”


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