Janet Evans finds something else at Olympic swimming trials

OMAHA -- Janet Evans was still dripping wet when she signed her retirement papers. She checked the box marked “permanently retired.”

“I can’t wait to go take a yoga class,” she said.

Amanda Beard, Natalie Coughlin and Dara Torres came to the U.S. Olympic swimming trials for a ticket to London. Evans, the fourth woman in the quartet of oldies but goodies, came for the experience, and the affirmation.

“I’m proud I had the courage to try,” she said.

Evans, 40, finished 53rd among the 65 competitors in Saturday’s qualifying heats on the 800 freestyle, with a time of 9 minutes and 1.59 seconds. In 1989, she set the American record that still stands in the event — 8:16.22.

“How was it so easy then?” she said.

Evans won three gold medals in 1988, one more in 1992, and handed the Olympic torch to Muhammad Ali to open the 1996 Atlanta Games. She retired thereafter, started a career as a motivational speaker, lent her name to the annual Janet Evans Invitational at USC, married, had two kids — and then decided two years ago to stage a comeback.

She rose before 5 a.m. to drive from her Laguna Beach home to Huntington Beach for workouts. She realized months ago that an Olympic bid would be out of reach, that she was out of time to develop the stamina to compete as an elite distance swimmer, but she kept on training even as her coach offered the option to quit.

“Doing something for myself,” she said, “and inspiring others to maybe go do something they’re scared of doing, or maybe outside their comfort zone. I think it became bigger than making the Olympic team.”

Her relatively slow times led some critics to question her motivation, but any negativity appeared more than washed away by the loud ovations she received Thursday when she finished 80th among 113 swimmers in the 400 freestyle, and on Saturday.

She mounted her comeback in part so her children could see her swim. Her 2-year-old son, Jake, slept through the 400. Her 5-year-old daughter, Sydney, saw the race and scurried down to ask her mother whether she had won.

No, Evans said.

“It’s OK,” her daughter said. “I still love you.”

Evans laughed as she told of the college swimmers she had encountered after Saturday’s race.

“They were talking about how old they were,” she said. “They were 21.

“I was like, ‘You’ll be OK.’ ”