Evans Doesn't Seem Unhappy About End Tonight's 800-meter Freestyle Final Will Be The Last Race Of Her Swimming Career.

Posted: July 25, 1996

ATLANTA — After tonight, no more chlorine stink to shower away.

After tonight, no more of the drudge and monotony of practice lap after practice lap, up and down, back and forth, kick and stroke, in water that gives only cold comfort.

After tonight, her shoulders can shrink back to normal size, and she can buy those sundresses for which she says she yearns so.

After tonight, no more split times to record, no more medals to hang, no more records to chase.

No more sport.

Janet Evans, who was for a long time the most tireless mover through the water this side of a dorsal fin, will reach the end of the pool tonight. And this time, for the first time, she will not flip and make the turn.

She will swim her farewell race, the 800-meter freestyle, and that she is in the final is news in itself. For she is already the best known non-qualifier of these Games. She made a grievous and inexcusable miscalculation and failed to qualify in the 400-meter freestyle two nights ago, swimming for a time instead of swimming to beat the opposition.

It was the mistake of a novice. Janet Evans has been a world-class performer for much of her life. To guess rather than to perform? Only one conclusion: She no longer cares all that much.

She seemed less than repentant and not all that interested in redemption. Yesterday, she swam with no particular passion or haste. She seemed almost disinterested and was cavalier about it afterward. She finished third in her heat, then had to wait out two more heats, and was moved down to sixth with a heat still left. The eight fastest times qualify for the final.

Fortunately for her, the final heat went slower than expected and Evans survived. Yet she never watched those two heats, she lolled through a half-hour cooldown afterward, and then she emerged from the water with this attitude:

``I was like, whatever. What happens, happens.''

Clearly this is an athlete who is a cinder. She is totally burnt out.

And she seems not only unafraid to leave the sport and go out into the world, she appears downright eager. She is 24 years old and the end to swimming can't come soon enough, although she has confided privately that she knows she will cry when she makes her last touch. So some of her elaborate nonchalance is probably a facade.

``I'm happy, really,'' she said after she qualified yesterday. ``I made it back to the finals. I'm happy.''

But standing there on the deck of the practice pool, in a white USA T-shirt, navy blue shorts and a black cap, it seemed she was trying harder to convince herself than us of her happiness.

It's always intriguing to watch an athlete confront the farewell from sport. The better you are, usually the more wrenching the separation, and Janet Evans is regarded by many as the best woman distance freestyler ever. She doesn't strike you at all as the sort who will live in the past, though if she chose, it would be a rich past, replete with four gold medals.

She still holds the world and Olympic records for the 800. She set the former seven years ago, the latter eight years ago. That's a long shelf life in this sport.

But clearly she peaked then, and has been in languorous decline. Yesterday, her qualifying time of 8 minutes, 38.08 seconds was 22 seconds slower than her world record.

The fastest qualifier of all yesterday was another American, Brooke Bennett. She was almost six seconds faster than Evans. She is eight years younger. That is the penalty of age in sport - almost a second a year.

When Evans came to confront the media horde that had been keeping the vigil, waiting to see if she would, incredibly, repeat her miscalculation, she was limping noticeably.

``I stubbed my toe in the locker room,'' and it was broken, she explained. ``That's why I'm a swimmer. I can't do anything on land.''

She is an engaging person, well-spoken, and she has made a tidy profit off being extraordinarily fast in the water and bubbly out of it. Frankly, I had been surprised when she came off sounding like quite the little whiner in talking about the sudden and dramatic emergence of the Irish triple-gold medalist, Michelle Smith. There have been less than subtle hints that Smith's explosive times came out of a drug bottle.

Turns out Evans did not bring up the subject, did not volunteer anything, and was asked, then pressed, about it. So there are mitigating circumstances. The real shame is that whenever an athlete does something startling, our initial reaction is suspicion. There has been a loss of innocence, a death of joy.

Once, joy was what Janet Evans was known for.

It is clear she no longer finds it in water.

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