Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans

The four-time Olympic gold medalist and mother of two discusses her renewed love for swimming, balancing training with motherhood and how her return to the Olympics impacts her legacy.

Olympian Janet Evans is considered one of the greatest distance swimmers of all time. The California native was swimming laps at age 2 and, by 11, setting National Age Group records in distance events. At 15, she broke the world record in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle and won her first gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. After the 1996 Games in Atlanta—during which she was given the honor of carrying the Olympic Torch at the Opening Ceremony—Evans retired, but later changed her mind and is currently training for the 2012 London Games, which would be her fourth Olympics.


Tavis: At the age of 15, Janet Evans became an international swimming sensation, setting a series of world records over the next couple of years before going on to win three gold medals at the ’88 Summer Games.

After more medals in ’92 she announce her retirement after the 1996 Olympic, but not before giving us a memorable image, one that I’ll never forget as long as I live – passing that torch to the champ, the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali, during the opening ceremonies. We all recall that.

Last year she turned 40, which I want talk about in a moment, and like so many of us spent a lot of time thinking about that milestone. However, unlike the rest of us, she’s decided at 40 to do something unthinkable – get back in the water and try to earn a spot on the U.S. team that will compete this summer in London. Did I mention that she’s the mother of two babies, no less? Janet Evans, good to have you on this program.

Janet Evans: So glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

Tavis: I teased you when you walked in, there’s an imposter on our set. We see the pictures of you played over and over and over again, so we expect to see a 15-year-old with a swim cap walk in, and you’re a grown woman. Married, with kids.

Evans: I know, I’m married with kids and it’s nice, because I can be very anonymous until I go to a swimming pool and then I’m not. But it’s good. I’ve kind of like eked my way into normal life outside of athletics very well.

Tavis: Before we talk about doing what you’re doing now at 40, you and I were talking before we came on the set about the difficulty, I was reading about the difficulty you had turning 40, and I had it as well. Not everybody does. Some people go right past it, no big deal. Other folk have a hard time getting over that hump.

It was really, really rough for me, and I’m not a person who’s – I don’t get caught up on age. But for me, it was really about my life and whether I was moving in the right direction and whether or not – I was very fortunate at 39, I’d done a lot of stuff already, been in TV and written books and best sellers and all that kind of stuff.

But I was still just wondering whether or not I was in the space I needed to be in.

Evans: Yeah, I totally get that.

Tavis: Did you have the same kind of trouble?

Evans: I’ve talked to a lot of people about it, and people say, “Well, I didn’t have issues with 40. I had issues with 30.” I said, “Well, why?” and they go, “I don’t know,” but when I turned 30 it was like I had retired from swimming at 24. Thirty, it was all kind of just beginning, and I loved my thirties. I had my children, I got married, I saw the world.

So when I got to 40, and I don’t know if you felt this way, I was kind of like, what now? Like okay, so I’ve done all of those great things that I thought I wanted to do in my thirties, got married, had my kids, and besides staying home and being a wife and raising my children, I’m like what do I do to make me feel a little more fulfilled as well?

So I think going into the age of 40, around 38 was the time I decided that I would maybe dip my toe back into the swimming pool, literally and figuratively. So it was right around 38, kind of like you, 38, 39, I just got this sudden urge to maybe do a little bit more. I like being busy, I like doing things, so it was kind of appropriate at that time for me to actually swim again.

Tavis: Do you think that this return has anything to do, to your story now, with restlessness?

Evans: No, I don’t think it was restlessness. I think it was – I think any mother would tell you, we put everything on the back burner for our babies, for our children. I would be up in the middle of the night with one of my children, rocking them and thinking, gosh, this makes being an Olympic swimmer look like a piece of cake.

I think it was the way my mind thinks, that swimming’s a part of my soul and I think I’ll always be able to do it, and I think I’ll always be able to do it well. At the end of the day I wanted to put my head on the pillow and feel like I was doing something for myself as well.

Not to skirt around the issue of being a good mom and a good wife, but just to do something that made me feel good, too.

Tavis: But there are a lot of things you could have done, I could imagine, that would make you feel good (laughter) that are a whole lot less intense.

Evans: Yeah, I know, I know.

Tavis: As you well know, you’ve done this a few times, being an Olympic champion, being an Olympic swimmer, period, much less a champion, the work you put in – I was looking at your schedule the other day.

Evans: I know.

Tavis: Your training schedule of what time you get up – and I’ll let you tell the story – and how you – what time do you get up?

Evans: I get up at 4:20 every morning.

Tavis: And you do what at 4:20?

Evans: I drive to the pool and I swim five miles. Then I go to the weight room for an hour. So I’m in the pool two hours and then I go to the weight room. Then I come home and take care of my babies most of the day, get my five-year-old to school.

Then at about 2:30 in the afternoon I go back to the pool and swim another five miles. I do that six days a week. Saturdays are different because my husband’s home and they don’t have school, but that’s what I do. So yeah, so doing something for myself and swimming 10 miles a day are two very different things, right? (Laughter)

Tavis: I got a list of things I can give you. There’s a whole list of things I can give you of things you could have done.

Evans: Right, maybe like volunteer for (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah, PTA. (Laughter)

Evans: Yeah, that’s true.

Tavis: There are all companies you could volunteer.

Evans: Yeah, I know, work at the library or something.

Tavis: The library, yeah. One of the reasons you’ve said that you are going to try this is because the times in swimming have not changed that – you still hold some records, obviously.

Evans: I do.

Tavis: So the times have not – your 15 years of retirement, you can still, you can do this.

Evans: Yeah, yeah. Well, yeah, my world record was broken in 2008, in the 800-meter, which was my best event, so it stood from ’87 until 2008. One of the catalysts into doing this, and I was having all these emotions and feelings about wanting to do it anyway. I received a phone call from my coach in the summer of 2010 and they had just had the nationals, the United States swimming, and the girls, I think the winning time was, like, an 8:26.

My world record that I broke in ’87 was an 8:16 seconds, so they were still swimming 10, 12 seconds off of my best times, and not to say I could jump back in the pool tomorrow and go an 8:16. Maybe I can, and I’m certainly working towards going in the 8:30, 8:20 range and I’m getting there.

But yeah, if these girls were swimming 8:05s and 8:10s, I wouldn’t even try because it would just be futile. It’s interesting, because in the sport of swimming, every world record and all the times have gotten faster with the exception of these distance events.

It’s a very interesting phenomenon that these women have been swimming – or girls, I should say – have been swimming the same times that we were swimming in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and here we are in 2012 –

Tavis: What do you make of that, given that times have gotten faster and everything else? Why not this –

Evans: I think swimming’s a hard sport. There’s a lot of other sports. I know my daughter, who’s five and a half, I ask her if she wants to join the swim team and she asks me how many days a week she’d have to swim, and I say, “Five,” and she’s like, “No, I don’t want to swim.” (Laughter)

So I think that, like, it’s a hard sport, and then to add the distance, I swim eight minutes, I swim 16 laps of an Olympic-size pool in one race and that takes a lot more training than someone who maybe swims one or two laps. I’m not sure that right now, with all the distractions and everything else that kids have the options to do, that they want to put in the work.

Tavis: Has your training regimen changed? The times have not changed a lot, but people, I don’t think they train the same way now that they trained 15 years ago. Technology’s different. So has your training regimen changed?

Evans: My training is similar, actually, because as a distance swimmer it’s all about just getting the mileage in and getting the laps in and getting the endurance in. For me, having taken so many years off, physically I’m back to my fighting weight. I was a little heavier at the end of my career, so I’m thinner, I’m stronger – we do a lot more core work in the weight room, Pilates, yoga.

But for a distance swimmer it’s getting our endurance, and physiologically for me, I need to get that fitness level. I am incredibly fit right now, but I have a little while longer to go to get that physiological fitness level that I really need to get.

Tavis: So what determines success for you this time around? Is it making the team, is it setting a certain time, is it winning a medal? What’s success look like this time around?

Evans: Well, my first goal was to make it to Olympic trials, and I made the time standards to swim at trials. They’re at the end of June in Omaha. So to me, that’s success. So the rest of this is the cherry on the top. I’d love to obviously make the Olympic team. I want to do really well at Olympic trials and make myself proud.

I think it’s just knowing what I’m capable of when I get to the meet and feeling how I feel in the water and seeing what happens. People say, “You’re messing with your legacy,” and “Why would you do this?” I say, “How does it mess with my legacy?” I could leave this interview and never swim another stroke for as long as I live, and no one can take away my medals or my records.

I still have my beautiful family to go home to, my great husband, do you know what I mean? So to me, there was really nothing to lose except for a little bit of sleep. I feel like I’ve learned so much more. It’s been very empowering. I’ve had friends and families step up to the plate to help me and give me encouragement.

I’ve felt so much love that I never really thought I would. I’ve just been pleasantly surprised by how rewarding it’s been on many different levels outside of getting in incredible shape and actually making it to Olympic trials at the age of 40.

Tavis: It might not mess with your legacy, but will it mess with your head if you don’t –

Evans: I don’t think so. I think –

Tavis: I don’t want to find you in a mental institution a year from now because it didn’t work out.

Evans: No, I know, I know, I know. No, I’m much more stable than that, and I feel like one of the reasons I wanted to do it was because at the end of my – so I swam in the ’88 Olympics, I beat the East Germans, I won three gold medals. I swam in the ’92 Olympics, I only swam two races. My first race, I was touched out by 19/100ths of a second, and I won the silver. In my world, that wasn’t okay.

I won a silver and then a few days later I won a gold medal, so I left the ’92 Barcelona Olympics with a gold and a silver to make my medal count four Olympic gold medals and one silver medal, but I hated the sport of swimming.

By the time the ’96 Olympics rolled around, swimming to me was a means to an end. I was supposed to do it, I was still good, I was still competing with the best, but I didn’t like it. I was tired of training; my mental attitude wasn’t as good as it should have been. There were things I would have done differently. I think in the back of my head, regardless of the success I had in my earlier career, I always regretted a little bit my mental attitude and how I felt between the ’92 and ’96 Olympics.

So for me to come back and kind of find joy in the sport again, from 1989 until 1996, for seven years I never swam a best time. In swimming that’s very important, because it’s progress.

Now every time I jump in the pool I do a best time, and that’s fun for me. So I think coming back to the sport and appreciating it and going at it with a better attitude and having a little more wisdom has helped me. It’s helped me find a nice balance and a nice place for the sport of swimming in my life, which is a much bigger picture than simply just swimming.

Tavis: Two things – one, a comment; the second, a question. The comment – you weren’t just competing in the ’90s with the best, you were beating some of the best. Even folk who were doped up, we came to find out later on.

Evans: Yes, yes, yes.

Tavis: Which raises a question, first about how the doping has changed your sport and how often are you getting tested now, does that embarrass you, does it make you feel –

Evans: Yeah, all the time, all the time. Well, no. It’s funny, I used to sit on the athlete’s commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency, and we put in all these policies while I was on it of oh, the athletes should be available one hour a day where we know where they are and we can come test, and now that I’m that athlete, I’m like, “This is hard.”

I’m on the computer every night, listing, on a daily basis, where I’m going to be kind of each hour. They know I’m here right now. They know where the studio is. So the United States Anti-Doping Agency could show up right here and demand a urine test and a blood test.

It comes with the territory. It’s what we have to do to attempt to keep sport clean. I think when I was swimming in the late ’80s it was different in that while we weren’t as naïve, it just wasn’t as much of a focused, concerted effort to stop the cheaters. So we had the East Germans, we had the Soviets, and all the countries that have come out now and have admitted to systematic doping.

I think doping has become – after having been very involved with it on the World Anti-Doping Agency, a little more almost like mainstream. It’s like it encompasses all sports in every country, and I think it’s – when I swam I felt like it was more confined to the Eastern Bloc, unfortunately.

So I think it’s a tough gig. I think the World Anti-Doping Agency and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency have a large task ahead of them, because I think, unfortunately, there are athletes that are always willing to risk their health and they don’t care about cheating. To them, winning a gold medal or being at the Olympics might be worth it.

But I think we do as much as we can to stay ahead of the cheats, and that’s all we can do.

Tavis: Even champions, though, even champions get tempted to cheat. Were you ever tempted? Were you ever approached?

Evans: No, I was never approached. I was certainly never tempted. I wouldn’t even know how to start or, like, where to go. I would just never do that. It’s not worth it to me. A lot of the East German women that I swam against, who I later became friends with, and they were lovely women, are lovely women, all they had was swimming.

Now to know that it was because of chemicals and steroids that they swam well, but a lot of them are having health issues. Their children have had health issues and they’ve personally had health issues. Swimming’s a part of my life, but it’s certainly not risking my health or not being able to be with my children for. It’s just certainly not worth it to me.

Tavis: I want to go back to something you said – the second issue I wanted to raise. You suggested earlier that for a period of time – years, in fact – you were really unhappy with the sport. You were unhappy with swimming for yourself. How does one spend your entire life – you started swimming at age two, age five, you were in the water.

How does one spend their entire life dedicated to a particular proposition or sport or activity and get to a point where they are emotionally, they are psychologically averse? They’re just turned off. How does that – take me through that.

Evans: Well, it always amazed me. I met my husband after he was finished swimming, and he’s never understood it either, but it’s kind of what you do. My mother can’t swim and my dad kind of just floats. My dad calls swimming what you do when you fall off a boat, right? So swimming to me was this internal thing. My parents were always like, “Look, if you want to quit swimming, please do, because we don’t want to get up at 4:00 to take you to work out.” (Laughter) It was like they were okay with it.

Tavis: Please quit, Janet, yeah.

Evans: Yeah, please stop. My mother to this day still can’t swim. But I have two older brothers, and the middle one, the second one, is actually very, very talented – probably more talented than me. He was a very good swimmer, and he hated it.

So for me it was a real internal drive and it had nothing to do with my parents, but for me, I always wanted to win. I was never – I think because my parents weren’t athletes, I never learned that it was okay not to win, do you know what I mean? Because my parents just helped me with my drive, but I never had a mentor or someone to tell me, “Janet, you don’t have to win all the time.”

So for me it was this inner drive to win, and when I stopped winning or when I stopped breaking records or when people started criticizing me, because people always criticize us, right, whatever we’re trying to accomplish, it became very internal within me.

Like I don’t like this but I have to do it because I’m Janet and I’m supposed to win gold medals. It almost became this very, like, vicious circle. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t know what else to do without swimming, because it was such a big part of my life.

I don’t even know if that makes sense, but it’s like when people tell you your whole life you’re born to do something and you’re very good at it, you kind of do it because that’s all you know, and that’s all I knew.

Tavis: How did you get motivated? Who motivated you? I know there were your coaches, obviously, or your coach, but when your parents could take or leave you swimming because they don’t want to get up at 4:00, and I ain’t mad at them either, I understand that.

So if they could take or leave you doing this, obviously they want their daughter to be successful in whatever she does. But where was the motivation? I ask that because as you know, there are parents who push these kids. It is their dream for these kids, and oftentimes, parents are overbearing.

Evans: Right.

Tavis: Kids get turned off to it. Andre Agassi, wonderful book you may have read.

Evans: Yes.

Tavis: His dad pushed him. Andre at one point was rebelling against his father because he pushed him so hard in tennis. So your parents weren’t overbearing, but who was motivating you during that time?

Evans: Me. It’s so funny, because my mom will tell you that – she made my dad get up and take me to work out, so if my dad hadn’t taken me to work out, I would have walked. It was this real internal drive.

So as a mother now, my daughter loves gymnastics, and she’s tall. She’s certainly never going to be a gymnast, but she loves it, and I love that she loves it. But I go to these gymnastics classes and there’s parents griping at their five-year-olds.

I was telling my girlfriend at gymnastics last week, this kills me. I’m that mom that’s like I want her to have fun and enjoy it. I would never push her. I have to tell you, it was very rare for – and I know a few – but very rare for me and all the athletes I encountered in my career to meet an athlete whose parents pushed them who was successful, because I think it has to come from the athlete.

You talk about Andre Agassi – there was still a drive within him. There’s something –

Tavis: But at one point he hated tennis like you hated swimming at a certain point.

Evans: Yeah.

Tavis: I think folk go through that at some point.

Evans: I think any athlete might feel that way. And tennis, in the same vein as swimming, is a very individual sport, so you only really, at the end of the day, have yourself to count on and yourself to motivate. If a team is relying on you – I’ve always dreamed of being in team sports, because you have these people relying on you, and what a great feeling.

But when you’re getting out there every day and hitting the court or getting in the pool, I think the motivation is an issue, so you get a little tired of it. But it still was in – I had this inner drive, and I still have this inner drive, which is why I’m still back in the pool.

Tavis: Did you have thoughts – I’m just curious now. I wonder if you had thoughts on the Michael Phelps situation. So Michael is a world champion and everybody loves this guy, and he’s human like all the rest of us and we all make mistakes.

I ask this because you navigated your fame and fortune so well, and I know there’ll be a lot of Americans pulling for you this time around because we love Janet Evans and we want to see you succeed again.

But what were your thoughts when Phelps got caught with regard to how it is when you become famous overnight with all these medals, navigating that? This guy, of course, happens to be a swimmer as well.

Evans: Right, right. Well, I was disappointed, I think, like everyone else, but I also think Michael went to his first Olympics when he was 16 and he was a boy, and I have a son and I know that boys will be boys. I think he just needed to kind of grow up.

I think in this day and age he’s grown up more so than I did in the public eye, and I think that he was just – I certainly can’t defend what he was doing, so I think it’s what 20-year-old boys maybe do. I don’t condone it. It is what it is and I think it was a very dumb move, for lack of a better word, and disappointing. But you certainly can’t take away from what he accomplished in Beijing, and he’s a good guy.

Tavis: How did you navigate, though? Because it might not have been dope, but there’s so many child athletes who as a part of growing up, and to your point, being human, guys do certain things, girls do certain things.

Evans: Yeah, of course.

Tavis: How have you navigated this?

Evans: Well, I went to college, and not to say that going to college keeps you on the straight and narrow by any means, but when I was finished with the ’88 Olympics, I could, via NCAA rules I could either take money and endorsements or I could get a college scholarship.

My parents always let me choose, but my parents kind of navigated me towards the side of get an education, because my parents aren’t athletes and they’re not swimmer. It was like, “Who knows how much longer you’re going to swim? We’d prefer you to get a college education.”

I think for me, going to college kept me focused. I was on a scholarship, I went to Stanford, I ended up transferring to USC. But it kept me with a goal and a focus in mind, whereas a lot of the younger swimmers today don’t go to college. They take the endorsement money, and here they are at 17, 18, 19, 20 years old, driving fancy cars and having significant amounts of money because of their success, and I think that is harder to navigate.

When you are famous and successful and you have money and you’re young, that’s what young kids do.

Tavis: Do you regret that? Because everybody takes the money.

Evans: I know. I know, I know.

Tavis: What were you thinking?

Evans: Well, it was because – and people still say that to me, “What were you thinking?” But in the late ’80s there wasn’t as much money in the sport of swimming, or the Olympic movement. Once again, I wasn’t doing it for any of that.

In ’88, I was overwhelmed with the fame and the cameras waiting at the airport. I was just this kid from Orange County who, like, wanted to go back to my high school boyfriend and go to homecoming, you know what I mean? So for me – and I think that made it more fun for me, because until the very end it was never my job.

It was just something I loved to do, and I didn’t want to make money. I wanted to enjoy it and swim in college and be a teammate and get a scholarship and leave a legacy for my kids that their mom was a college athlete. It was really important to me.

Tavis: Obviously, I’m just teasing. I think it’s a great decision.

Evans: I know, I know. Well, thank you. Thank you.

Tavis: I love the decision, because it is so rare.

Evans: Yeah.

Tavis: I got a minute and a half to go. I want to end where we began, which is with these time trials now. So I’m not going to put you on the spot and ask you to tell me numbers, but how close are you to the goal that you have to hit to do what you need to do?

Evans: I think I – and I’m going to be short because we have to talk about Ali, because we haven’t talked about that.

Tavis: I want to talk about it. Go ahead.

Evans: I get better every week, so I’m not super close, but my only issue is I hope I have enough time. Ian Thorpe, who just failed to qualify for the Australian Olympic team last month, or a couple weeks ago, said the exact same thing – “I’m not sure I gave myself enough time.”

Tavis: Enough time, yeah.

Evans: But then again, I don’t know if I could be getting up at – if I had started this a year out, I might be so burned out by now getting up at 4:30 every morning and swimming 10 miles. So we’ll see. Cardiovascularly, I hope my body can be in shape.

Tavis: So do I. We will end where you want to end, which is Ali, the greatest of all time, my man – I love the Champ. You had a lot of great moments in the pool. Where does this rank, passing him the torch, as great moments out of the pool?

Evans: I would give up every gold medal to live it again. Every world record, every gold medal.

Tavis: Wow. (Laughter)

Evans: It was amazing. It was amazing, yeah.

Tavis: It’s a great photo. That was a great moment.

Evans: Yeah, it was unreal.

Tavis: Could you feel – you were there, could you feel what everybody in that stadium and around the world were feeling in that moment? The energy was just so palpable.

Evans: It was unreal. It was unreal. When he came up, and I was running, it felt, being a Californian, it felt like an earthquake.

Tavis: You knew it was Ali. You knew Ali was coming.

Evans: I knew it was Ali.

Tavis: Okay.

Evans: But it felt like an earthquake. The best thing was when the Miracle on Ice team lit the torch in 2002, I was in the stands, and I said to the person, an Olympic person who I was sitting next to, “This is the most -” I knew those guys and I was so excited for them (unintelligible) and Craig and all those guys. I said to this person, “This is the most amazing torch-lighting ever,” and she said, “This? This is amazing, but this is nothing compared to what it felt like when Ali lit the torch.”

Having lived it, I don’t think I – I can’t be on the outside looking in, but it was pretty surreal. I cried for five minutes when it was over, and I never cried after any of my medals. So I think that kind of puts it in perspective.

Tavis: Wow, that’s a great story. Thanks for sharing it.

Evans: Of course.

Tavis: I’m pulling for you, Janet Evans.

Evans: Thank you very much.

Tavis: I am so pulling for you. (Laughter) Go, Janet.

Evans: Okay.

Tavis: Good to have you here.

Evans: Thank you. So glad to be here.

Tavis: Hopefully we’ll be talking months from now when you have some good news to share.

Evans: I won’t be so sleepy. (Laughs)

Tavis: All right. Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 10, 2012 at 3:44 pm