On a night when two Orange County women swimming in different directions crossed paths if only for a fleeting moment, the Phillips 66 National Championships came to life Thursday.
World-record holder Janet Evans, 23, rallied after a slow start to place second to Brooke Bennett in the 400-meter freestyle, the meet’s most exciting race.
Later, Amanda Beard, 13, who will be a freshman at Irvine High in the fall, became the youngest U.S. champion by winning the 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 1 minute 10.37 seconds at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in Pasadena.
“I was worried that I’d do totally bad and get eighth place,” said Beard, who is one of the United States’ emerging stars. “I think I was just nervous.”
Evans, in her final year of competition after winning five Olympic medals and numerous world and national titles, also was nervous.
She was worried that she might be left off her first national team in 10 years after failing miserably in the 800 free and 200 free, where she finished fourth and 22nd, respectively. The top two finishers in each event will travel to Atlanta next week for the Pan Pacific Championships.
It looked as if she had little chance to overcome a handful of teen-agers after trailing badly midway through the race.
But with sudden spark, Evans made a move on Trina Jackson, 18, of Jacksonville, and Bennett, 15, of Plant City, Fla., the swimmers most likely to supplant Evans in the distance races.
Just as suddenly, Evans looked like the champion of old and the 3,500 fans were treated to an old-fashioned race. On the last lap, Bennett and Evans turned almost simultaneously and stayed together to the finish, with the teen-ager barely touching the wall first.
“It gave me a lot of confidence,” Evans said of the finish. “I had no expectations for this race. I was just happy to make the finals, so this made me feel a lot better.”
Her coach, Mark Schubert, however, could not have been more elated. He was skipping along the side of the warm-up pool, relieved at Evans’ performance.
“I know she has the ability to race a quality race,” he said. “She is alive and well.”
Bennett won in 4:10.72, a good time for her, but Evans’ 4:10.75 would be considered slow compared to her world record of 4:03.85.
Still, the way the week was going, she was more than satisfied. After losing in the 800 on Monday night for the first time in eight years, she went to her West Los Angeles apartment and considered dropping out of the meet.
“Then I thought, ‘I’m better than that. I have more pride than that,” Evans said.
Few would have blamed her, considering Evans is suffering from inflamed tonsils that will be removed next week. Because of the condition, she might skip the Pan Pacs.