Six years ago, Janet Evans was churning through a preliminary heat during the Mission Viejo Swim Meet of Champions when Mark Schubert, then coach of the Mission Viejo Nadadores, turned to a reporter and said, "She's the tiniest thing I've ever seen and she's got a funny-looking stroke, but keep your eye on her."
Evans, then an 80-pound 12-year-old, looked like a wind-up bathtub toy with her almost-straight arms paddle-wheeling through the water. But Schubert, now the women's coach at the University of Texas, knew a prospect when he saw one. And, indeed, the whole world has had its eye on Evans since that trademark windmill stroke propelled her to three gold medals in the 1988 Olympic Games.
Monday night, the Placentia teen-ager added another accolade to an already bursting trophy case when she was awarded the James E. Sullivan Memorial Trophy, for the outstanding amateur athlete of 1989, before a black-tie crowd of 1,300 at the Westin Hotel in Indianapolis.
Evans, 18, is the 10th female and the second-youngest athlete to win the Sullivan Award. Swimmer Tracy Caulkins won in 1978 when she was 16.
It was third time that Evans had been nominated for the award. Last year, she lost to Florence Griffith-Joyner despite setting a world record and an American record during her triple-gold performance in Seoul, Korea.
Evans came back strong in 1989, breaking her world record in the 800-meter freestyle, establishing American marks in the 1,000- and 1,650-yard freestyle events and running her unbeaten streak to 27 consecutive races.
"I'm going to miss coming back here every year," Evans said. "Just being a finalist is quite an honor and this is an even greater honor. I'm pleasantly surprised.
"It's difficult to compare how I feel tonight to something like winning an Olympic gold medal. It's a totally different feeling. As an athlete, you usually have control over how something comes out, but this is a different kind of honor. I guess it really hasn't sunk in yet, but it will be very nice to go down in history with this list of athletes."
Evans said the award helped reaffirm that she had made the right choice by deciding to continue her swimming career at Stanford rather than accept a number of lucrative endorsement offers.
"Everyone told me after the Olympics how hard it was to come back the next year and do well," she said.
"It was a difficult decision, whether to swim collegiately or take the money. Now I'm really glad I decided to keep swimming."
So is Richard Quick, coach of Stanford's defending NCAA champion women's team. But he wasn't exactly overjoyed that his star freshman decided to go to Indianapolis three days before the NCAA championships begin in Austin, Texas.
"Richard wrote up some workouts and I swam three times in the (Indiana University) Natatorium," Evans said.
But she did admit that autograph seekers might have diminished the quality of those workouts a bit. Fans actually were yelling for autographs every time she held onto the side of the pool between laps.
Evans, who says swimming at Stanford has been just the inspiration she needed to maintain her competitive spirit, believes the two-day respite in Indianapolis will be a rejuvenating force.
"I think this little break will help me, though," said Evans, who is now 5-feet-7 and 116 pounds. "I'll be all right as long as I stay off my feet. Of course here I am standing here in high heels.
"But I'm swimming faster than ever in training and I'm really looking forward to my first collegiate championships, so we'll see what happens."
Whatever happens, it's not likely that Evans will lose her easy-going charm. Even before the Olympics, she was talking about remaining "Just Janet," no matter how well she fared in Korea.
And long after the formal press conference had ended Monday night, Evans remained in a media room chatting with reporters. She even snuck a candy bar--definitely not a regular part of her training regimen--and then quickly hid it behind her back when a photographer approached.
Somehow, she managed to smile politely one more time. And there wasn't even a trace of tell-tale chocolate to reveal she had "broken" training.