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 Janet Evans ever since that windmill stroke propelled her to three gold medals in the 1988 Olympic Games.
Monday night at the Westin Hotel in Indianapolis before a black-tie crowd of 1,300, the Placentia teen-ager added yet another accolade to an already bursting trophy case when she was awarded the James E. Sullivan Memorial Trophy as the outstanding amateur athlete of 1989.
It was third time she had been nominated for the award. Last year, Evans lost out 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, however, breaking her own 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," she said, flashing the infectious grin that earned the reputation as "America's Sweetheart" during the 1988 Summer Games. "Just being a finalist is quite an honor and this is an even greater honor. I'm pleasantly surprised."
Evans, apparently just as at ease in a pink, off-the-shoulder taffeta gown as she is in a lycra swimsuit, 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 deals.
"Everyone told me after the Olympics how hard it was to come back the next year and do well," Evans 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 isn't exactly overjoyed that Evans, his star freshman, decided to come here for the award presentation just three days before the NCAA championships begin in Austin, Tex.
"Richard wrote up some workouts and I swam three times in the (Indiana University) Natatorium," said Evans, who is no longer dwarfed by the competition at 5-7, 116 pounds.
"I think this little break will help me. I'm swimming faster than ever in training, so we'll see what happens."
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.