"Retirement Was Something I Was Ready For"

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At two, she starts to swim, at 16 she breaks her first world records, at 17 she gets three Olympic gold medals, at 25 she retires from the pool, and at almost 39 she has two children and continues to be an inspirational idol in the United States. Janet Evans, the smiling young swimmer who raced to victory in the most demanding events of the 1988 Games in Seoul – the 400m and 800m free, and the 400m individual medley – is a happy woman, one with plenty of energy and always eager to give back to the sport what she got out of it.

Despite being a short (1.67m) and light (54kg) athlete, Janet has been one of the most iconic swimmers of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a career that comprised five Olympic and five World Championship medals, seven world records, and more than 40 national titles. Purveyor of a peculiar “windmill” stroke, the Californian star – she was born on August 28, 1971 in Fullerton – had a very successful career from 1987 to 1996, the year in which she announced her retirement at the end of an Olympic Games in Atlanta at which she started out by handing the Flame over to Muhammad Ali at the Opening Ceremony before going on to finish 9th in the 400m freestyle and 6th in the 800m.


Back in 1988 she had been the star of the Seoul Games (with three solo gold medals and a stunning 400m world record that would survive until 2006), while in Barcelona 1992 she retained the 800m crown and took silver in the 400m. Her FINA World Championships career is studded with honours, including three crowns (1991, Perth: 400m and 800m; 1994, Rome: 800m), a silver (1991, 200m free) and a bronze (1994, 4x200m free). Beyond that 1988 400m free record standing for 18 years (Laure Manaudou, FRA), her 1988 1,500m freestyle global mark did not fall until 2007 (Kate Ziegler, USA) and her 1989 800m effort remained the time to beat until the 2008 Olympic Games (Rebecca Adlington, GBR).

Many say that her performances were well ahead of their time. Difficult to judge, but one thing is sure: Janet lived each moment to the full, managing to compete at the highest level, deciding her retirement when appropriate, and maintaining her connection to the world she always loved, swimming and competition. Her energy, pleasant nature and sympathetic disposition help Janet in her new duties as motivational speaker and corporate spokesperson for several companies (she has also been FINA Athletes’ Commission Chair) and have proved essential to helping her keep her cool in her most demanding task in life: the education of her two children.


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Janet Evans (USA) - credit: gettyimages

The last time I met you, you were expecting a child, I assume your second one – how did the baby change your life and how do you manage your home life?
Life has changed with my second because it’s now twice as much work! But it’s all going smoothly ... well as smoothly as it can go with a 4-year-old who runs in one direction and a 10-month-old who crawls in the other direction. I’m in the best shape of my life simply from chasing the two of them around the house!

A very busy life managing your family, friends, professional activities...
My daily life is busy, especially now that I have two little ones! My son, Jake Thomas, was born on August 28, 2009, which also happened to be my 38th birthday! Having a 4-year-old and a nearly-one-year-old definitely keeps me on my toes. I’m also still working with various Olympic sponsors, so I travel quite a bit. I’m going from morning until night trying to balance it all, but I’m loving every minute!

Was it painful for you to retire?
Retirement was actually something that I was ready for. After three Olympics and thousands of miles in the pool, I was ready to move on to other aspects of my life. For me, I had accomplished everything I’d ever dreamed of and more, so it was definitely time to hang up my suit. I’ve never seriously considered a comeback simply because I don’t feel the need. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t miss participating in the sport and appreciate every opportunity that it gave me and continues to give me.

Do you think that athletes are prepared for that inevitable outcome (retirement)?
I think athletes do well with retirement when they’ve accomplished all of their goals. We in the Olympic world are all such goal-oriented people that it never surprises me when someone makes a comeback in order to complete some “unfinished business” in the pool.

How do you see cases of extraordinary longevity in sport, like Dara Torres?
With all of that said, if I could train for the 50-freestyle like Dara, I’d consider a comeback too! But training to swim the 800m is way too much for my 38 year-old body to handle!!!

How can a champion in sport also be a better citizen?
I think a champion in sport can be a better citizen by using their experiences and accomplishments to inspire others to be the best that they can be. At the end of the day, that’s really what the Olympic movement is about: not everyone can be an Olympian, but every person can strive to be their very best at whatever it is they decide to pursue.

Would you like your children to follow your passion (Swimming)?
My 4-year-old daughter Sydney can swim all four strokes and is actually quite a good little swimmer. And Jake has been in swimming lessons since he was seven weeks old. I put my kids in the pool early because we live in California and drowning prevention is something that I’ve done a lot of work with...so I wanted my children to be proficient in the water for safety reasons. If they want to swim, that’s great...although my husband can take them to morning practice! But seriously, I just want them to find a sport and/or activity that they can be passionate about and learn similar lessons to what I learned in the sport of swimming.

When you see swimming from a pool-deck perspective, what’s your feeling? Would you still like to be IN the water?
I really enjoy watching swimming from the deck. Like I said, I’m so satisfied with my career that now it’s fun to simply be a spectator. It was pretty funny in Beijing...I actually had trouble finding tickets to swimming events and my husband teased me that I’d have to make a comeback in order to get inside the Water Cube! So I do like to watch it when I can actually see it.

The last time I interviewed you was before the Olympics in Beijing... What did you think of Phelps’ achievement in the Water Cube?
What Michael did in Beijing was epic. So incredible. Really, what more is there to say? I’m a big fan of his.

For many, you are one of the best and most charismatic swimmers in history. With this in mind, there is one question that arises: do you have anything you regret in your career (something that you could have done or achieved but you didn’t)?
I have absolutely no regrets in my career. Even getting touched out for the gold in the 400 freestyle in Barcelona has been a blessing for me. It’s made me realise that we won’t always win and that the secret to success in life is learning how to deal with the low points just as well as we deal with the high points.

For all those who have the privilege to know you, there is one thing that strikes: your positive energy! Are you really as happy as you seem?
My energy... well, I used to have a lot of it until I had two kids! Yes, I usually am very happy. And as far as having lots of energy...how else could I have made it through all of those distance workouts for so many years? I was always energetic and outgoing on the pool deck. I think it’s because I was usually having so much fun. I never tried to take swimming too seriously...at the end of the day, it’s simply a sport...and I think that took a lot of pressure off me and just allowed me to enjoy it for what it was.

After so many years of interviews, is there still something that perhaps no one asked you but that you consider important? Hmm... I think I’ve been asked every last one! But I really do believe that we are all very fortunate to be a part of such a wonderful sport and I’m appreciative to everyone who was involved in my career and supported me through the years.


Janet with her husband Billy Wilson, their 4-year-old daughter Sydney

and baby son Jake - credit: gettyimages

THE TALLY

Olympic Games
Gold
1988 – 400m free
1988 – 800m free
1988 – 400m IM
1992 – 800m free

Silver
1992 – 400m free

World Championships
Gold
1991 – 400m free
1991 – 800m free
1994 – 800m free

1993 – 400m free (S/C)
1993 – 800m free (S/C)

Silver
1991 – 200m free

Bronze
1994 – 4x200m free 

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