Most of Southern California’s 17-year-olds can pretty much go to the mall or the movies without being noticed by, perhaps, more than a few friends.
For Janet Evans these days, however, a shopping trip or visit to any other public place often elicits turned heads, whispers and autograph requests.
Evans, whose name was not commonplace outside the swimming community before the Summer Olympics--despite her three world records--now finds herself a symbol of pride for Placentia, Orange County, California and the United States.
The El Dorado High School senior has become quite a celebrity since winning three gold medals in Seoul.
“It’s kind of strange to go into the mall and have people recognize you,” said Evans, who carried home gold after winning the 400- and 800-meter freestyles and the 400-meter individual medley.
Evans, however, remains unfazed by the fuss. “My friends treat me like a normal person,” she said.
Maybe she can remain so calm because she has always been an excellent swimmer and has always had the goal of going to the Olympics.
Evans, 17, began swimming at the age of 4. “I’ve sacrificed a lot, but it was all worth it,” she said. “I set a goal, and I realized it.”
A poster on the wall of her bedroom reads: “Winners Make Commitments.” Evans is well-acquainted with commitment, but her commitment goes beyond the boundaries of the pool. She is also committed to her family and friends.
“They support my swimming,” said Evans, referring to the people in the pictures that are pinned to her bulletin board. “They understood when I couldn’t go out with them because I had practice the next morning. They’re great and I enjoy being around them.”
Evans credits her parents, Barbara and Paul, with teaching her about responsibility and effort. “My parents never forced me to swim,” she said, “but my mom always told me that if I was going to swim, that I should put all of my effort into it, not do it halfheartedly.”
Although the sacrifices have been great, so have the rewards.
“I have had many opportunities that other kids have not had,” Evans said.
Recently, she appeared as a morning guest on radio station KROQ-FM, attended a movie premiere and was grand marshal in a parade at Disneyland. She will soon be a guest at the White House, where she will meet President Reagan and his wife, Nancy. All this in addition to the traveling she has done as a member of the U.S. swimming team.
The city of Placentia named Oct. 8 Janet Evans Day. She served as grand marshal of her hometown parade and that night was honored with a community celebration at Bradford Stadium.
“I think it’s really neat that the community has gotten involved,” she said. “They have given me so much support.”
Evans’ high school honored her with a welcome-back assembly, and El Toro High presented her a plaque during half time at a recent football game between the two schools.
Throughout the hoopla, Evans has remained modest about her Olympic success. “It was really an honor just to be there,” she said. “It was a great experience.”
Evans said the media attention she received in Seoul “was really bad the first week, but then you just get used to it.”
During her first week back at school, some students--particularly the freshmen, Evans said--would turn around on campus to catch a glimpse of the world-famous swimmer. But her teachers and friends treated her no differently.
“My friends just like me for who I am,” she said.
It is surprising that Evans had time to remain on friendly terms with anyone while she was in training. She would wake up at 4:45 a.m., work out from 5:15 to 7 a.m. and attend school from 8 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Once home, she was able to get in a little homework before she rushed off to swim from 3:30 to 6 p.m. She would often go to bed as early as 8 p.m.
Evans is thinking of competing at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992. She has decided not to sign any product endorsement contracts because she doesn’t want to jeopardize her amateur standing. Nor does she want any further interruption of her personal life.
“I talked to some agents, and they said, ‘If you think things are bad now, just wait until you get started doing endorsements,’ ” Evans said.
Another reason she chose not to be a commercial spokeswoman is that she could be needed at any moment to shoot a commercial or make an appearance, even if it meant missing another day of school. And missing much more school might mean not graduating with her class this year--an idea Evans does not like.
“I won’t be swimming (competitively) all of my life,” she said. “I have to go to school and study just like everyone else.”
For now, Evans has returned to the routine of a normal high school student--but a routine that includes more time for classes and friends than her Olympic training schedule allowed.
Besides her plans to compete on her school’s swim team again this spring (Talk about an edge on the competition!), Evans is enrolled in an honors English class, chemistry, yearbook and government. She fell behind because of the Olympics, but she said most of her teachers have given her time to catch up. She admits to feeling lost in chemistry, but her English teacher, Steve Dutcher, excused her from reading “Siddhartha” because of the Olympics.
Evans is proud of her accomplishments, but remains realistic about her future, which she hopes includes attending a good college.
“I want to go into communications,” Evans said. “I really like people. I really like to talk to people. I might like to be a sports commentator.”
It’s plain to see that she is good with people. She has handled her public acclaim with maturity and poise.
“The role of celebrity,” Evans said, “comes with the territory.”