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Answering the Call of an Aquatic Passion

Years after retiring, gold medalist Janet Evans returned to competitive swimming.

Janet Evans

What did a world-class athlete have to prove to make her come out of retirement and attempt an unlikely comeback at age 40? Swimmer Janet Evans had broken three world records at age 15 and gone on to compete in three Olympics, winning five medals, four of them gold.

But there are some challenges you need to take on just for yourself.

In truth, she’d never been satisfied with how her swimming career ended.

It wasn’t so much that she finished sixth in her signature race, the 800-meter freestyle, at the 1996 Summer Olympics. On any given day there might be someone younger, stronger, faster; that’s sports and she could deal with it.

It was that she couldn’t improve no matter how hard she trained, that her body was no longer able to do what her mind wanted it to. She’d hit a wall. Frustrating in your fifties, even more so at only 25. And hard to accept.

Still, Janet dove into the next phase of her life. She built a successful career as a motivational speaker, married in 2004, had two children. A happy life, full of blessings. She figured her swimming days were behind her.

Even her husband remarked that he didn’t think of her as an athlete. Then, on the cusp of turning 40, she felt the pool calling her again. Something deep inside her soul told her she had to try again.

One morning in September 2010, she left her house in Laguna Beach, California, before dawn to swim for two hours at a local college pool. Why the 5:30 A.M. workout? So she would be home for breakfast. She didn’t want to take time away from her kids.

Her body ached that first day, in places she’d forgotten she had muscles. It took her over nine minutes to swim 800 meters—great for a 40-year-old mom but nowhere near her world record of 8:16.22. Still she went back to the pool the next day. And the day after.

She got into the rhythm of training, and discovered something she hadn’t experienced since her teens. She was getting stronger and faster. By fractions of a second each day, but the improvement was real. Her body was responding, doing what her brain and her soul willed it to.

Maybe more important, she wasn’t worrying about what people thought, about whether she was fast enough or good enough, the way she had in her twenties. It was fun for her to come home and tell her husband and kids over breakfast what she did at her workout and have them cheer.

This January Janet went to Austin, Texas, for an Olympic trials qualifying meet. Her first race was the 400-meter freestyle. She stood on the starting block more nervous than she’d ever been. Would she even have a chance?

She won her heat in 4:17.27, a full five seconds faster than her best practice time, fast enough to secure a place at the Olympic trials. She also made the cut in the 800 free, her 8:49.05 time almost 10 seconds faster than practice.

Janet knows there’s little chance of her winning a spot on Team USA. She’s okay with that. What matters is taking on a new challenge, having fun with it and growing because of it. And rediscovering that, as she told the Los Angeles Times, “swimming is in my soul.”

Read more inspiring Olympic profiles.

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