Janet Evans turns 40 today. No matter who’s holding a clock to time her on this one, she isn’t ready to feel old.
Her son, Jake, also turns 2 today.
“Cupcakes and balloons — that’s fine with me,” the three-time Olympic swimmer said from her home in Laguna Beach the other day. “It’s an all-kids’ party.
“I mean, who wants to turn 40? Every year goes by too fast now. No, I don’t need any interventions.”
Interruptions, maybe. Like, some quiet time to catch a nap between workouts that could lead to a curious adventure sending her back swimming at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Between time spent as a mom to Jake and 4-year-old daughter Sydney, and a wife to Bill Willson for seven years, Evans has put away the teddy bears she used to clutch as a teenager after winning gold medals and bared her soul to the pool again, making not so much something she wants to call a “comeback” but more of an attempt to see what’s possible.
You’ll find the USC graduate before the crack of dawn at the Golden West College pool in Huntington Beach most every morning, sticking to a plan set by her former USC coach, Mark Shubert.
Evans had a moment to come up for air and explain how things were going as she hit the milestone age mark:
QUESTION: Where do you hurt today?
ANSWER: Definitely, my shoulders. I just swam eight miles and it feels like there’s a piano on my back. Then I did two hours of exercise and an hour of lifting (weights). It feels good. But it does hurt.
Q: How in the heck have you managed to avoid a major injury for so long? What’s the secret?
A: In my sport, any shoulder injury – that’s it. For me, my stroke doesn’t put a lot of pressure on the shoulders. The interesting thing about swimming again is that a lot of the things I read, researchers say older athletes can do the same things physically as they did earlier in life, but once they become injured, it obviously takes a longer time for healing. So knock on wood, the shoulders may hut, but it’s nothing that a little ice or massage won’t help. I’ve had nothing career-threatening. That’s just a blessing.
Q: Coach Shubert has called this a “project” rather than a “comeback.” Is that mentally the better approach to take with this?
A: Yeah, I think so. I didn’t start doing this to come back for the Olympics. I was just getting close to 40 and at a place in my life where I could find more time to do things, coordinate it with my family. A lot of moms feel they get to a place where you can put things back on the front burner. This is something I felt I could still do, but who knows what’ll happen. We take it day by day.
Q: So during this “project” you’ve been breaking masters records in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle events. Does that kind of create any sort of goal-setting with incentives to push forward?
A: My times are improving and right where I want them to be 11 months out of the trials. It’s always great to break a world record – on any level – but I’ll need to do more than break those records just to meet (current Olympic) standards. They are a very good indicators, though. The other day, I swam against two people who were 88 and 91 years old. Talk about inspiring! This has been a very interesting journey into the masters’ world, but I’ve loved it.
Q: And there was Dana Torres, at 41, competing in the 2008 Olympics, taking three silvers. That had to be inspiring.
A: Dara and I were on two Olympic teams together – she does the one-lap events and I do 16. So it’s very different training. But yeah, what she did inspired all of us. It was incredible. But it’s a different journey, a real personal one, for each of us. I know if I never swim another stroke, I don’t regret what I’ve done the last 11 months. Regardless of what Dara did, I’d still be doing this.
Q: There was the story recently about Diana Nyad, age 61, trying to do the 100-plus mile swim from Cuba to Florida. It seems like only the water conditions prevented her from doing it. Is that something you’d ever be able to do?
A: I don’t do ocean. That scares me. I’m a very spoiled pool swimmer. I know (Diana) well. I followed her story and it was sad to see it end for her the way it did, but it’s not the result that mattered, it was the journey to mentally and physically get there. I’m not sure anyone has given her enough credit for what she did at age 61.
Q: In all the training you’ve been doing, how important is sleep in the equation of working out, eating right and avoiding stepping on a fork or pulling a muscle stretching for a pacifier?
A: That’s a question no one has really asked before. My husband keeps telling me I need more sleep. It’s really the only time the body has to recover. The hardest part of coming home after a practice is starting a full day with the kids. As an athlete, you want to lay on the couch and watch TV. I still have the mindset of an elite athlete , but now I come home, and I’m a mom. Sleeping at night has become very important to me, but it’s really hard sometimes. You have nights where the kids are up sick. You need husband time. But he’s been awesome. He lets me get to sleep by 10 p.m. every night. I get close. But I do have a friend called caffeine that works as well.
The kids are the most interesting addition to training, but the good part is my coach has a daughter that’s married to my husband’s best friend, and we have kids almost exactly the same age. So my kids are close with my coach’s grandkids. And because of that, he understands what I’m going through. I might get up one day and say, “Coach, Jake was up all night with a cough.” And he’ll say, “OK, then get some sleep, and work out at this time instead.” It helps so much to have a coach who really knows what his daughter is going through in the same situation and he’s super good with all that.
Q: Your records that were broken in Beijing with the suits that are now banned: Don’t you just want to race again, in those LZR Racer suits, to at least feel like you’re entitled to at least try to get the records back?
A: I do! I do! But in all honesty, I’m so happy since I’m swimming again that I missed that era. That was so ridiculous and such a black mark on our sport. I’m so happy it’s finally over. That really evened the playing field. The sport is based on body type and hard work, but everyone just floated in those things.
Would I like to use one of those suits? I think, ‘Gosh, I need all the help I can get.’ In our sport, it’s about getting tired hips and your body changing position. But with that wetsuit, you keep a buoyancy and the body stays in the same position, so you never get tired. Most swimmers get to a point where they feel they’re swimming uphill. But in those suits, it was like swimming downhill.
Q: It’s true your training starts with a swim at 4:15 a.m.?
A: I get up at about 4, I swim from about 5-to-7, left weights, then come home in time for my husband to hands the kids off on his way to work. I’m a full-time swimmer, full-time mom, with double workouts three days a week. It’s been a little tiring, but I also feel super good, and energetic, and I’m really eating better. Know what I mean?
Q: You’re basically working out while your kids sleep?
A: Yeah, and it helps that my parents live close by. They want to see the kids, so they go over in the afternoons . . . it’s win-win.
Q: And through all this, you haven’t had to change your stroke at all — still the head bob and the straight left arm?
A: No, and in fact, it’s more similar to how it was when I was beginning. By (the 1996 Games in) Atlanta, I weighed about 130 pounds (seen here). Now I’m closer to 112, to when I was in the late ’80s when I was a teenager. My stroke has been surprisingly good, which is another reason I could attempt this. If I needed to lose 15 pounds, doing this wouldn’t have made any sense. The fact is I haven’t swam in 15 years – I didn’t swim through either pregnancies — but I’m in good shape, and it’s not like I’m starting from nothing.
Q: How can experience work in your favor when you’re in the starting blocks against other competitors? Can you play mind games with them?
A: In my career, at the ripe old age of 40, you know how you did things correctly and incorrectly, so that helps. With age does come wisdom – isn’t that what they say? I should put that on my Twitter feed. But as far as having an edge . . . I don’t know. If I was a teenager swimming against someone who held a world record, I can’t say I’d be super psyched about it.
Q: Your exercise regime now — yoga, Pilates, weights – must give you such a strong core. How is that different from the training you last did in the 1996 Olympics?
A: Swimmers have always really had to have a strong core. That’s the basis of their stroke. You don’t realize what great abs you can have, but that’s from proper swimming. You use the stomach muscles more than anything. And society is now focused so much on the core muscles, so it’s fun to integrate all that.
If swimming was just about pounding out four hours in the pool, that would just be boring. There’s less about actual swimming now and more about having a level of fitness and strength outside the pool. If I’m 40, if all I was doing was swimming 15 miles a day, no way would I be doing this. But thankfully the training has changed to make is much more interesting.
Q: Was part of your training throwing out the first pitch at a Dodgers game recently? Nice arm. And you, again, avoided major injury.
A: Everyone told me, “‘Don’t throw out your shoulder.”They know I just don’t do well with sports on land. Water only for me
Photo by Jon Soo Hoo/Dodgers