Last Chance As Janet Evans Swims Final Olympic Event

Posted: July 24, 1996

ATLANTA — Janet Evans used to make her competition disappear, but today it could be Evans who disappears from the ranks of elite swimmers. The 24-year-old, four-time Olympic gold medalist suffered an unaccustomed setback on Monday when she failed to qualify for the final heat of the 400-meter freestyle, in which she holds the world record.

This morning, Evans will swim in the preliminary heats of the 800-meter freestyle, which is her only other event in Atlanta. She also holds the world record in the 800-meter race, but she set that record back in 1989.

``I was disappointed, but I put [the 400] behind me, and I'll be ready for the 800,'' said Evans, who broke down in tears after failing to qualify for the final in the 400.

Unlike the 400, where her main competition came from foreign swimmers, Evans also will have to deal with 16-year-old U.S. swimmer Brooke Bennett in the 800.

Bennett and Evans had a well-publicized spat last year that was eventually smoothed over. Bennett had the audacity to imply that Evans was starting to look over her shoulder at the competition, an implication that ruffled the older woman.

As it turns out, Bennett may have been cheeky, but she was also accurate. Evans won her first Olympic gold medal in Seoul in 1988, which is two lifetimes ago in the world of elite international swimming.

In the 1996 world rankings, Evans is behind only Bennett in the 800, but several swimmers, including 22-year-old Hayley Lewis of Australia, had entry times to the Olympics that are significantly better than Evans.

``She's a great champion, and I said in our team meeting that she would come back and do great things,'' U.S. coach Richard Quick said of Evans.

The final of the 800-meter race will be tomorrow, with Evans, if she qualifies, trying to hold off time as well as Bennett, Lewis, Kirstin Kielgass of the Netherlands and 15-year-old Chen Yan of China.

Also today is the women's 200-meter individual medley, with both preliminary and final competitions.

A continuing story of the swimming competition is the performance of Ireland's Michelle Smith, a 26-year-old who has won gold medals in the 400-meter individual medley and the 400-meter freestyle.

Smith's rise to prominence has been rapid, and she has been the subject of speculation that her improvement was aided by something other than just hard work.

Smith, however, has tested clean for all banned substances - including after Saturday's 400-meter win - and the swimming community might have to grudgingly acknowledge that she simply is fast.

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