Janet Evans first made headlines in 1988 as she brought home 4 Olympic Medals after competing as part of the US Olympic Team in Seoul, South Korea; where she not only competed in the 400, 800 and 1,500-metre freestyle events – but Janet also set a world record in the 400 Metre Freestyle event, finishing in 4:03.85 – all before she turned 18. Evans was one of the youngest to compete in the Seoul Olympics, standing 5’6 and weighing just over 100 lbs when soaking wet – later receiving praise from The New York Times for defying the odds and “Swimming with boundless energy” (Litsky, 1988) that allowed the teenager to set rise to stardom while most of her peers were still weighing Post-Secondary School options. In this video, we’re taking a deep dive into the infamous “windmill” swimming style that Janet brought to the freestyle events because while many argued that swimming with perfectly straight arm strokes isn’t proper formation – could this unusual technique be Evans’ secret to her successful career as an Olympic Athlete and her decision to return to competitive swimming nearly two decades after her last race.Janet Evans was born in Placentia, CA and from an early age, she was already showing skills of a potential Team USA Athlete, setting National level group records within her age group at 11 years old, which would lead to a career full of records being set and being named Female Swimmer of the Year for three consecutive years in a row alongside her other awards, such as the James E. Sullivan Award for being the top amateur athlete in the United States in 1989. Janet’s career is filled with highlights but like every great athlete, Evans experienced some difficult losses throughout her career that ultimately lead to early retirement and a much-anticipated return to the pool in 2012. Needless to say, as Janet Evans became a household name – conversations surrounding the strange nature of her swimming strokes were impossible to escape, sometimes even creating controversy within the swimming community.In an interview with her former coach, Bud McAllister explains that the infamous straight-armed motion was simply the best swimming stroke for Janet’s swimming style and body; and he decided that it would be more beneficial to develop her strength of this stroke rather than change it altogether. (Newsome, 2017). McAllister goes on to explain that he first discovered Janet at a pool in Southern California when she was 10 years old, and while others found her strokes humorous – Ben saw her potential as a gifted athlete, noting that she was extremely talented despite taking more than the average amount of strokes to swim across the 25-yard pool, taking about 6 strokes more than the average 30 stroke count for a pool of that length (Newsome, 2017). The advantage that using an arm recovery that was straight is that this stroke style would allow Janet to have more control over the speed of her hands and increase acceleration, and when it comes to swimming events where every second count – it was a no brainer that this stroke was the best suited for Janet to give her a competitive edge in the water against her opponents.To provide some context, when training to swim competitively, there are a number of swimming styles that require athletes to bend their arms while pivoting the pelvis slightly as a way to glide through the water quicker, reducing the amount of resistance that may slow you down, giving competitors a window where they can pull ahead. However, Janet’s technique as a swimmer slightly differed and she would continuously keep her arms straight both under and above water in a motion that was often compared to a windmill, paired alongside her ability to hold her breath for long periods of time while swimming without getting exhausted and falling behind mid-race. With critics often making a spectacle of Janet, from her stroke technique to her steadily increasing popularity, especially as she routinely setting world records at a young age. Janet was the first woman to have three world records in swimming simultaneously since this record had been set by German Swimmer Kornelia Ender in 1976. The only American woman to hold the same amount of records was Debbie Meyer nearly two decades before Janet was born. But Janet was unstoppable, and at the rate that she was going – it was expected that she would receive her fourth world record before her 18th birthday. Evans was making a name for herself at every opportunity, and her skills in the water started conversations across the United States, and there was no doubt that Janet would earn a spot on the US Olympic Team.With the tremendous amounts of success that Janet had during her first time competing in the Olympics, it was a fair assumption to believe that she would place similarly in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, defending her titles. While Evans was able to take home gold for the 800m Freestyle Swim, she was defeated by Dagmar Hase in the final stretch of the 400m Freestyle Swim, after holding onto a steady lead for nearly the entire race – putting an end to a 6-year long winning streak in the blink of an eye, Evans describing an Olympic Silver Medal as a tragedy. Like clockwork, it became nearly impossible for Evans to hide from the difficult loss as headlines compared her performance as a gold medalist while a teenager alongside the disappointing silver medal she brought home at 20. Janet expressed her disappointment as she held back tears in interviews post-race, explaining how difficult it was to live up to the pressure of holding the Olympic Gold Title, especially since all of her competitors wanted to claim the title for themselves.What’s important about the downfalls during Janet’s career is how differently her outcome was from the original plan she had to end her career in the 1992 Olympics. In her Ted Talk, Janet expressed that she hoped to defend her titles, ending her career on the highest note possible – only to lose the 400m Freestyle Event by a thin margin so devastating, she admittedly hasn’t watched a video of the full event to date. Despite defending her Olympic Titles in her remaining events, the thrill of the sport had faded, leaving Janet hesitant when asked to start training for the next Olympic cycle. After the first Olympic loss, Janet hadn’t lost all hope and still trained for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta in hopes of reclaiming her lost titles while defending her existing wins; however, she was unable to place top 3 in any of her events and eventually, Janet retired from competition and began pursuing other areas of her life, such as completing her education and starting a family of her own. Janet entered into her retirement still optimistic for the future ahead. For the first time in her life, Evans had the change to dedicate her time and energy to new ventures; taking the time to complete her Bachelor in Communications, tying the knot with her husband Bill Willson in 2004 and they would later welcome two children, finding new thrills in everything that her life now had to offer. In addition, Janet embraced the chance to publicly speak about her life story, sharing her inspiring journey with audiences across the United States – including Fortune 500 companies such as McDonald’s, Proctor and Gamble, and BMW. Despite her tremendous success in public speaking, Janet was never satisfied with the way that her career ended after the 1996 Olympics and often wondered what life would have been like if the spark that first allowed her to fall in love with swimming was reignited. Wanting to find purpose in other areas of her life was part of a larger picture that lead to Janet’s retirement, and with having a family, successful career, and building the new life experiences that she had hoped – getting back into the Olympic Pool to reclaim her Olympic Title was next. Even though retirement brought a sense of relief over the years, it was clear that Janet had unanswered questions that would eventually pull her from retirement after 20 years – but the road back to the Olympic stage would prove to be a challenge. When Janet received a text from her former coach about swimming, she realized that there was a chapter of her life that didn’t feel completely finished, and she desperately wanted to close that chapter how she originally planned, but she still had reservations about balancing lengthy training sessions alongside her family; wondering if it would be possible to complete hours of practicing daily and still have time to take care of things at home on top of her full-time job. With the support of her loving husband, all of the roadblocks that Janet thought stood in her way were solved by the strength of her support system – and taking the first step on the long journey no longer seemed like an impossible dream.The day after Janet broke the news to her husband that she was going to start swimming, she got to the pool in her neighborhood bright and early at 5:30 AM, shocked by the reminder of the frigid chill of the water first thing in the morning. Janet went from being a force to be reckoned with during her Olympic glory days to finding it hard to keep up with the local teenagers at the pool; proving that if she wanted to make it through the Olympic qualifiers – she had a lot of work to do, and she was prepared to give it up for good when the going got tough. When she called her coach to deliver the news that she was deciding to quit, but this time, for good, McAllister urged Janet to keep fighting to reach her goals by focusing on the big picture step by step, explaining that the Olympic Trials were still a number of years away and there was plenty of time for improvement. After dedicating hours to training each day, Janet found herself with finishing times that were similar to what she was able to do in her 20s, and the teenagers that she would swim with weren’t as difficult to keep up with. Not long after, Janet’s hard work paid off as she found herself en route to Nebraska to compete in the Olympic Qualifying event after completing an 800m Freestyle Swim in 8 minutes and 46 seconds – nearly finishing in the same time as her race in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Her hard work over the years had finally paid off and she was greeted to a crowd full of fans cheering for the long-awaited comeback during the Nebraska Qualifiers. Although Janet gave the preliminary race everything that she had, she wasn’t one of the fastest 8 swimmers in the race, and she was unable to secure a spot on the 2012 Olympic Team.Not securing a spot on the US Olympic Team was a tough pill to swallow, but Janet noticed that she didn’t feel the same devastation that she would have felt earlier in her career; moving from a time where the thoughts of others would be enough for her to throw in the towel to finding success in her achievements regardless of the final outcome. In the end, returning to competitive swimming was more about closing a chapter of her life on her own terms; finding comfort in knowing that the opinions others have on her career didn’t matter – what mattered was that she found satisfaction in herself, and that was enough to finally bring this lifelong journey to an end. Janet’s career is full of highlights and being a Five-Time Olympic Medalist is an accomplishment in that of itself. However, with each victory – Janet realized that she was losing parts of herself in pursuit of making others happy. Winning brought temporary pleasure, but it wasn’t the long-lasting satisfaction that Evans had been searching for. Only once she revisited her past with fresh eyes and the support of a loving family – she was finally able to put the past behind her and learn that there is more to life than standing on the mountain top; in many cases, the most important lessons are learned on the climb to the peak.


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