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Janet Evans: No compromise, no limits, all courage

By Alan Abrahamson | June 26, 2012, 11 p.m. (ET)

OMAHA -- Janet Evans came out of the water after swimming her preliminary heat in the 400 meters and said, with a big smile, albeit perhaps a little ruefully, "Janet just got 80th with a 4:21!"

This was after the sixth heat of 12. Janet, who had just finished seventh in her bunch of nine, had no idea what place she would ultimately finish. All she knew at that instant was that she was for sure not going to make the U.S. Olympic Team in the 400 and yet the crowd was cheering for her like crazy.

It took about a half-hour for the six remaining heats to finish. When they were all done, Janet Evans, 40 years young, mother of two, an inspiration to swimmers, athletes of all sorts, moms, dads, everyone, had finished in exactly 80th place -- out of 113 -- with a time of 4:21.49. 

Go figure.

If you were expecting Janet to make the U.S. team for the London 2012 Olympics, either in the 400 or in the 800, which she'll swim later in the week, you're likely to be disappointed. 

The thing is, that's not her drop-dead expectation. 

"I realized a long time ago I didn't think I was going to get to the Olympics," she said, relaxing after the 400 swim with a small group of reporters who have known her a long time.

This was always way more about the journey than the destination. 

This from a woman who has five Olympic medals -- four gold and one silver, and is widely considered the greatest female long-distance swimmer of all time.

"The end goal was to be here," she said, meaning the Trials, adding a moment later, "That's the first time in my life, for me, I have ever been at that point. Because it has always been, like, you make it to the Trials, you make it to the Olympics, you win a gold medal, you take two weeks off and you start all over again. It was a very different concept …"

This was always about not accepting compromise or limits.

A year or so ago, Janet had a so-so swim at a meet. Her coach, Mark Schubert, asked if she wanted to keep going. The choice, he said, was all hers. She said, I am not a quitter.

Janet Evans' children are 5 and 2. That's a full-time job. She has another full-time job, as a motivational speaker. Swimming became a third full-time job. 

Yet she said Tuesday, "I think for me the hardest part was finding the courage. Do you know what I mean?"

A moment or two later she explained: "I could have stayed home … the hardest part was the courage to actually put myself on the line and put myself in front of people that could criticize you if they wanted to, or not."

Some people, let's face it, will not -- and will never -- understand what Janet did here Tuesday. For them, it's make the Olympic team or bust. 

She gets that. 

"I think the people who get it will get it and the people who don't get it won't get it. Not everyone gets my silver medal from Barcelona," in 1992 in the 400, "which I think was one of my greatest victories, because it taught me so much, right?"

Allison Schmitt, who is coached by Bob Bowman -- Michael Phelps' coach, too -- finished first in Monday's prelims, in 4:05.60, almost 16 seconds faster than Janet's time. 

"It is what it is," Janet said. Later in the evening, Allison won the 400 final, in 4:02.84. Chloe Sutton took second, in 4:04.18.

Kylie Stewart raced in the same heat that Janet Evans did Tuesday morning. Kylie Stewart is 16. That's way closer in age to Janet's daughter, Syd, than to Janet. Janet laughed about that.

There was a lot of sweet, appreciative laughter from Janet here Monday.

She said, "I got a text from two of my best friends this morning. They're like, OK, I hope you go 4:02." Janet's best is 4:03.85, which she swam when was 17, at the Olympics in Seoul, in September, 1988. "I'm like, OK, are you kidding me? You're my best friends! Hello!"

Janet said she intended to re-group for the 800 prelims, on Saturday. Another friend e-mailed her husband, Billy Willson, to say, "Can Janet drop 25 seconds in her 800?" For the uninitiated, that's improbable if not impossible.

She laughed some more.

Janet said, "I'm certainly disappointed with my time. But I"m not going to let it taint the experience," adding, "I would love to have gone to gone faster. But at the end of the day, is it defining?" 

That's a rhetorical question, of course.

But here's the answer: Absolutely not.

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Janet Evans