Janet Evans didn't challenge speedskater Bonnie Blair's record of five gold medals under the lights in Olympic prime time Monday night; instead the American swimming icon found herself fighting off tears at a morning news conference, trying to explain why.
For the first time in a major international meet, the 24-year-old Evans failed to make the final in the 400-meter freestyle. Eight swimmers make it, and Evans, who was second in her heat, was timed in 4 minutes 13.60 seconds in the morning preliminaries, just behind Eri Yamanoi of Japan, who finished eighth in 4:13.40.
Nine was the loneliest number for Evans, a four-time gold medalist.
"I've learned life is not fair and today proved that point," said Evans, who grew up in suburban Placentia and lives in Pasadena. "I was disappointed. I think I would be inhuman if I wasn't."
The issue of fairness--and international controversy--appeared front and center at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. Evans would have made the championship finals if Ireland's Michelle Smith had been removed from the race in the early morning hours after a last-minute hearing by international arbitrators.
U.S. Swimming had protested Smith's entry, as had Germany and the Netherlands, saying Ireland had missed the July 5 deadline. After a ruling in her favor, Smith finished second in the preliminaries, then won the gold impressively in 4:07.25.
The move sparked an American outcry.
"So many times over the years we've asked to replace a swimmer with an injury situation and been turned down," said USC's Mark Schubert, who is Evans' personal coach. "They said those rules are unbendable. It depends on who asks and how much they want to bend the rules. It's ridiculous. Now, if a FINA member needs a favor from an IOC member, or vice versa, it'll happen."
But the Irish contingent was just as furious, saying the United States was picking on a "poor country without a 50-meter pool."
"The Americans played very, very dirty pool on this issue," said an angered Patrick Hickey, Ireland's IOC representative.
Still, it would have been a moot point if Evans had hit her target time of 4:11 or even 4:12. She was far off her winning time of 4:10.97 at the U.S. Olympic trials in March, and admitted to a distinct lack of confidence in the 400.
"I'm just going to remember, a 4:13 for me in the morning is pretty good," said Evans, who won the 400 at the 1988 Olympics and holds the world record of 4:03.85. "Going into this year, I have been more confident in the 800. Now I have something to prove [on Thursday], that I can be better than I was today."
What happened to Evans on Monday is not unusual. Jani Sievinen of Finland was fully expected to challenge Tom Dolan in the 400 individual medley Sunday but didn't make the final, qualifying ninth.
Still, Evans tried hard to remember when she last failed to make a final in the 400, and came up empty.
"It was a long time ago," she said.
Said U.S. women's swimming coach Richard Quick: "She miscalculated her race this morning. Usually when you are second in a heat in the Olympics, you have a very good chance to make the final.
"It happens in all sports. Janet swam a little too easy going out and got in a little bit of an easy routine instead of pressing it as hard as she should have."
Others watching the race disagreed, saying she had not been holding back. Evans didn't think she had.
Smith was asked if she was surprised that a champion of Evans' caliber would fail to make the final.
"I'm not surprised," she said. "I saw her on TV a week ago and something she said on TV told me she didn't have the hunger.
"Coming here, not in the shape she had been before, I saw that as a weakness. If she had been in the finals, I would have used that."
Naturally, word filtered back to Evans, who looked irritated and joked about reporters turning Smith into her rival. Her emotions were something of a jumble at the long news conference--tears, smiles and fierce pride.
"OK, I'm still Janet, I can still swim fast," she said. "I'm happy. It was really neat that people came up to me and said, 'You're still the greatest.' It's true. I've gotten to the point in my career, what I've done is great."