new york times magazine
June 23, 1996
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark



After winning at the Barcelona Olympics, Janet Evans turned hydrophobic: for four months, she wouldn't get wet except to shower. When she changed her mind and decided to compete again, she took a look around and noticed that things were not the same. The skinny high‑school junior who had taken three golds in '88 with her awkward windmill stroke, then four years later plucked another gold and a silver at Barcelona, was now ... bigger. Since Seoul, she had grown seven inches and put on 18 pounds.

There was a fresh crop of skinny high‑school juniors out there, too. Among them was Brooke Bennett, who says that she set her sights on Olympic gold after watching Evans in Seoul. But Bennett's idolatry turned sour in March of '95, when, with all the brashness of youth, the 15‑year‑old suggested that Evans feared her. Evans, unimpressed, reminded Bennett that by the time she was 15, she had already set three world records. But Bennett would soon beat Evans, at that summer's Nationals, in the 400‑meter, 800‑meter and 1,500‑meter freestyle events. (This summer, Evans will swim only the 400‑ and 800‑meter races.) Around the pool, people wondered if Evans was washed up. Reporters asked if she'd retire. Was 45 national titles all a girl could expect?

Evans kept going. Her coach advised her to race less and train more. But the laws of senescence show no mercy: while Bennett trains all‑out, daily, Evans, at 24, must rest on alternate days; it takes her ancient muscles that much longer to recover. Maturity has had little effect on Evans's style: she still doesn't bend her arms, and she still posts negative splits-she swims faster in the second half of a race than the first. At the Olympic trials in March, Evans took either first or second in all her events. True, Bennett beat Evans at the 400 meters, but the kid knew better than to gloat. Evans's comeback was for real. Says Evans, "Mentally I'm as tough as ever ‑ once I'm in the water."

Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark