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Swim icon Janet Evans falls short of Olympics in comeback

OMAHA, Neb.

This time she was done for good. She had found her answers, and she had tried her comeback, and in the end, her comeback had been simply too much to ask of her body.

So Janet Evans walked away from the pool, from the last competitive race of her career, from the cheering crowd and the young swimmers who had taken over her old kingdom.

Now there was a pen in her hand, and there were retirement papers in front of her. She had completed an agonizingly slow 800-meter freestyle race only two minutes before, and her hair was still wet, but she wanted to do this now.

There were two boxes on the form. One said "temporary retirement." The other said "permanent retirement."

Evans paused for a second. Then she checked "permanent."

She was done.

After all the years in the water, after the last chance at making a last Olympic team fell short, Evans' career is complete.

She is 40, and she has a few strands of gray in her hair, and she jokes about her wrinkles. The odds against her coming back 16 years after she first retired were always staggering. She is not a sprinter like Dara Torres, 45. She swims the grueling races of 400 and 800 meters.

And so she failed. She finished 53rd in the heats of the 800 meters Saturday at the Olympic trials, failing to break the nine-minute mark (9:01.59). Earlier in the week, she had finished 80th in the 400-meter heats.

Yet, as she walked away, Evans was flashing that same wide, infectious smile that used to accompany all her best moments. She was happy, and yeah, she was proud of herself. As final exits go, you could think of worse ones.

"I'm just proud of doing it," she said. "You know what I mean. I think it's easy to think, 'Wow. I could do this. I used to be a good swimmer. And, you know, they're going fast, but I could do it, too.'

"I think it's easy to sit at home or sit in the stands and say that. I'm just proud of the courage it took. I really am. Getting out of bed every morning and not giving up … I could have slept in every day and just taken my 5-year-old to preschool. But I chose not to. That's what I'm proud of."

Okay, maybe "courage" isn't the right word. But "resiliency" fits. "Fortitude" fits. Evans, a wife and mother of two (her other child is 2), gave it the good fight. A lot of 40-year-olds would not have.

We are a cynical bunch, Americans. We believe in achievement. We aren't much for moral messages.

Still, there is something here for all of us, something about fighting against the aging process, about not surrendering to the lessening of our beings.

Consider last August, when Evans competed in a meet in Mission Viejo, Calif., and failed to crack nine minutes. Her coach, Mark Schubert, casually mentioned she could retire then. The odds of shaving 30 or 40 seconds off her time were low.

No, Evans said. She would not quit.

"To me, it became about more than making the Olympic team," she said. "It became about having a life as a mom but also doing something for myself and inspiring others to have the courage to go and do something they're afraid of doing, something that's a little bit outside their comfort zone.

"I wanted to swim faster than I swam here, but at the end of the day, that doesn't matter. It's about trying something and doing it and being proud of what you have done."

For Evans, there was always reason to be proud. In her career she won five Olympic medals, four of them gold. She set world records. Her American record in the 800, 8:16.22, still stands after almost 23 years.

Despite it all, Evans needed to make one more journey, just to test herself, just to see how much she could recapture. As Evans says, swimming is the sport "that never leaves your soul."

"Journeys mean more when you're our age," she said. "There is so much more to it. There is depth and meaning. I learned a lot. I learned my silver medal in '92 (in the 400) is okay. I actually appreciate my first career a little better now. It was so easy. How could it have been so easy?"

Evans smiled again. It is an older person's smile, a mom's smile, the smile of a person who has learned to appreciate the small accomplishments.

"It's funny," Evans said. "I was in the dressing room, trying to peel off this skin-tight suit, and there were these girls there who had just graduated from college. This was their last meet, and they were talking about how old they were, and they were 21. It was like 'I'm so old' and 'I have to get on with my life.'

"I laughed to myself and thought, 'I think you're going to be okay.' "

And Evans cackled.

Yeah, if she can fight old age this way, maybe we're all going to be okay.

Swim icon Janet Evans falls short of Olympics in comeback 06/30/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 20, 2012 8:50am]
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