In the summer of 1984, Janet Evans was just 13. She already was a standout swimmer, but she hadn’t yet defined her goals.
Then the Olympic Games came to Southern California, and Evans was mesmerized.
“I was a kid when I watched the Olympic cauldron lit by Rafer Johnson at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum,” she recalled. “That inspired me to be an Olympian.”
Four years later, Evans was swimming for Team USA at the Olympic Games Seoul 1988, winning three gold medals and setting a world record. She would go on to compete at two more Games and retire with four Olympic gold medals and a silver medal.
Now Evans, 45, hopes she and other Olympians and Paralympians can be the inspiration for a new generation. On Friday she’ll help play host to about 500 kids at the annual Olympic Day celebration in Los Angeles, one of a record-setting 2,400 Olympic Day events to be held around the United States. Olympic Day, which marks the birth of the modern Olympic Games in 1894, is recognized worldwide on June 23.
The Follow the Sun Olympic Day Celebration will be held in the City of Angels, hosted by LA 2024 — the organization bidding to host the Games that year — and the LA84 Foundation. Underserved boys and girls from across the area have been invited to take part in the events, which will allow them to meet athletes, try some of the sports and learn more about the Olympic and Paralympic movements.
“I’m hoping there’s kids that go home and say, ‘Wow, I’d love to be an Olympian or I’d love to work in sport or I’d love to try something different or I’d love to go out on a limb and have the courage to do something different,’” said Evans, who is director of athlete relations for LA 2024. “I think that’s what we hope. Sports speak to youth and speak to all of us, but it inspires youth in different ways and I just hope we inspire some kids on Friday.”
Kids will be able to try beach volleyball, badminton and archery, among other sports. It will be a similar setup to last year’s Olympic Day event at the Coliseum, in which the young athletes took part in fencing, archery and a few of the sports that often get overshadowed by the high-profile Olympic sports such as track and field, swimming, gymnastics and basketball.
“There were these sports that maybe aren’t quite as mainstream as the ones we see on television every single day,” Evans said. “But the kids absolutely loved it and it was really fun to see these young people get excited about sports that we’ve watched every year in the Olympics, but maybe they haven’t.”
Evans will be one of about 35 Olympians and Paralympians at the event, including track great Wyomia Tyus, swimmer John Naber, water polo standout Tony Azevedo and rower Susan Francia.
The goal of Olympic Day is to promote fitness, health and education while promoting such Olympic values as excellence, friendship and respect. Other notable organizations participating in Olympic Day events include Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Jewish Community Centers, United States Army and YMCA of the USA.
Evans says there’s a “lot of extra buzz” this year as part of Los Angeles’ bid to host the 2024 Games. The International Olympic Committee executive board recently approved a recommendation for the IOC to select host cities for the 2024 and 2028 Games simultaneously later this year. Los Angeles and Paris are the only cities bidding for the 2024 Games.
With Los Angeles a two-time host (1932 and 1984) and poised to get the Olympics a third time, Evans says this Olympic Day is a chance for the kids to learn the Games are “in our DNA” in the Los Angeles area.
“I think to be on the beach on Olympic Day,” Evans said, “to celebrate the beaches of LA, celebrate what this city has done with the Olympic and Paralympic movements and also to celebrate our athletes (taking part). … I think it will be perfect.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.