From the beginning, the national long course swimming championships last week in Fresno, Calif., belonged to Janet Evans, a 15-year-old water bug from Placentia, outside Los Angeles. She's a sprightly mite who wins hearts, lifts spirits and breaks records. In the first event of the meet, the women's 800-meter freestyle on Monday, July 27, Evans lopped more than two seconds off a nine-year-old world mark with a time of 8:22.44. On Wednesday she won the 400 individual medley, and on Thursday the 400 free. Finally, on Friday night, she stepped onto the blocks for the 1,500 freestyle with a chance to become the first swimmer in six years to win four national titles.
With the Seoul Games little more than a year away, Evans had already proved to be what U.S. Olympic coach Richard Quick called "the brightest light" in a coming-out party for young American swimmers. Amy Shaw, 15, broke the U.S. record in the 200 breast-stroke twice in Fresno. Dave Wharton, 18, twice lowered his own American record in the 400 IM. Another 18-year-old, Melvin Stewart, won the 200 butterfly with the best time in the world this year. Steve Bentley, 22, who has overcome a cocaine habit, trimmed the U.S. mark in the 200 breast. And Sean Killion, 19, pumped up over Evans's 800 performance, took nearly six seconds off the American record in the men's 800.
Evans, too, was excited by her time in the 800. "I'm more psyched up now," she said. "I don't think I'll settle down." By Friday, however, having swum two prelims and three finals in four days, she was tiring. So that day Evans, who normally gets up at five, slept until nine, swam a mile to stay loose and then, to relax, went shopping at Macy's.
That evening Evans went full-bore for the world 1,500 record. "Too many times we don't commit to a great swim by going after it," Quick said. "We get worried about dying. You just can't swim fast going slow."
At 1,000 meters Evans was more than four seconds ahead of the pace Kim Linehan had swum when she set the record of 16:04.49 in 1979. Evans's nearest competitor, Kim Brown, was 15 meters behind, and only the crowd was left to push Janet home. Louder and louder came the encouraging shouts, and for the last 150 meters, swimmers, coaches and fans were on their feet, whistling, screaming and waving towels, turning the Clovis West High swim complex into a giant noisemaker. Evans picked up her furious pace in the last 100 meters and touched the wall in 16:00.73, 3.76 seconds faster than the old record. "She was marvelous," said Matt Biondi, who holds world marks in the 50 and 100 frees. "Her tempo is as fast as mine is in the 50, and she goes for 1,500 meters."
"American swimming has a right to be excited about what happened here," said Quick. In particular, the American women, who floundered at the world championships last summer in Madrid, needed a booster shot like Evans's. When Betsy Mitchell and Mary T. Meagher, the two pillars of U.S. women's swimming, ran into each other shortly after Evans's spectacular 800, Meagher put her hands together, as if in prayer, and said simply, "Thank God."
Said Mitchell later, "We were getting sick of being such rare birds."
The latest rara avis, Evans, will be a junior at El Dorado High. She turns 16 in three weeks and hopes to get her driver's license shortly after she returns from next week's Pan Pacific meet in Brisbane, Australia. (The first- and second-place finishers at the nationals earned trips to Brisbane. Third- and fourth-place finishers headed for the Pan Am Games in Indianapolis.)
Evans is but 5'4" tall and weighs 95 pounds, and it is the diminutive size for a swimmer of such prowess that attracts everyone's attention. Not since 13-year-old Donna de Varona broke the world record in the 400 IM in 1960 has such a little swimmer made such a big splash. Evans is a natural water sprite whose mother, Barbara, recalls her swimming laps at the Y as a two-year-old. Barbara says Janet would finish swimming and get out of the pool for a bottle and a change of diapers.
Evans now competes for the Fullerton Aquatics Swim Team (or FAST, of course). Her coach, Bud McAllister, says, "She loves to swim." Her mom adds, "I think she would crawl to practice if I didn't take her."
Though her 800 record surprised many, Evans and McAllister had talked about going for it. Two days before the meet, in fact, McAllister agreed to shave off his mustache if she succeeded. "It's not a normal mustache," Evans said. "It's so long and yucky."
But McAllister must have sighed with relief at the end of her swim. "In the same conversation I promised my mustache," he says, "I said if she went under 8:20 I would shave my head."
Her 800 gave the entire meet a shot of adrenaline. "I got the shivers," said Stewart. "She's an inspiration to watch. She's so small, you're thinking, If that girl's tough enough to break a world record, why can't I?"
As Killion watched Evans in the 800, he thought, "Man, this pool is fast. She looks great." Killion, who is from Cherry Hill, N.J., was coming off a disappointing freshman season at Cal. He had failed to earn even a point at the NCAA meet in April.
With the crowd still buzzing about Evans's 800, Killion, pressed by Dan Jorgensen, took 5.79 seconds off John Mykkanen's U.S. record, set in 1984. Only the formidable Vladimir Salnikov of the U.S.S.R. has swum 800 meters faster than Killion, who touched in 7:52.45. And with a time of 7:54.78, Jorgensen became the third-fastest 800-meter swimmer ever.
The electricity continued in the prelims the next morning when Shaw broke an American record with a 2:30.77 in the 200-meter breaststroke, clipping Susan Rapp's 1984 mark by .38. In the finals Shaw became the first U.S. woman to break 2:30, with a 2:29.78.
In the men's 200, Bentley won in 2:15.30, .08 faster than Steve Lundquist's U.S. mark. According to one U.S. Swimming official, Bentley, who has a dolphin tattooed on his right foot, is "the Bill Lee of swimming." Bentley was ignored by college recruiters. "I competed against [Olympian] John Moffet in high school, and he didn't know who I was until the nationals [two years ago]," he says. After graduating from Fountain Valley (Calif.) High, Bentley enrolled at UC Santa Barbara, swam a little and experimented with drugs.
"I decided to try cocaine," he says. "And I liked it." For a while, Bentley used student loans to buy coke. The habit kept getting more expensive. He says he used about $ 1,000 worth of cocaine each week. He stopped paying for it and began accepting the drug in return for distributing it to other users.
He dropped out of UC Santa Barbara and enrolled at Golden West J.C. in Huntington Beach, Calif. Ken Hamdorf, the men's swimming coach there, tried in vain to get Bentley to join the team. He did train on his own. "I went to workouts even though I was stoned out of my head," says Bentley, who thought no one was wise to him. But in 1984, Hamdorf, with Bentley's parents present, confronted him about his substance abuse—he was also smoking and drinking heavily. Bentley began working with a sports psychologist.
"I focused the energy I was putting into drugs into swimming," he says. In 1985 he enrolled at USC, where he has swum for two years on the team and apparently remained off coke. "If I go to a party now where people are using cocaine, I feel a lot of tension, and I leave. It's so addictive I'm afraid I might fall back into it." His time in Fresno was the best in the world this year and made him the fourth-fastest 200 breaststroker ever.
Later Tuesday night, Stewart won the 200-meter fly in 1:58.13. Stewart is a "side-breather," meaning he turns his head to the side to breathe rather than lifting it straight up as he swims. "Your head weighs 10 to 15 pounds," he says, "and it takes a lot of energy to lift it out of the water. I find it much easier to breathe out the side." Quick thinks Stewart will turn quite a few other heads before he is finished swimming.
Last year Stewart transferred from Fort Mill (S.C.) High to Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy, so he had to give up his job as a hotel bellhop. At what hotel? "You're going to love this," he says. "My dad is the athletic director for the PTL. I had a part-time job at the Heritage Grand Hotel. The tips were nice. Some days you could make $100, other days maybe just $20."
Stewart seems to view the PTL debacle with wry detachment, but he feels for his dad, Melvin Sr. "It hurt my father when it happened," Stewart says.
Wharton won his 400-IM heat on Wednesday in 4:18.45, shaving .32 off his own U.S. record. He said he would return to the pool that night to try to break the world mark of 4:17.41, set by Alex Baumann of Canada in 1984. Just before Wharton stepped onto the blocks for the final, Meagher answered a phone in the press trailer, where she was working as an aide for U.S. Swimming. On the other end of the line was Wharton's mother, Nancy, calling from Warminster, Pa. Meagher offered to call her back a few minutes later with the 400-IM results.
"No, no," pleaded Nancy. "Are they going off right now? Can I just listen to it?" So Meagher held the phone outside the trailer and let Nancy and the rest of the family listen to the crowd whistle and yell as David sped to a 4:17.81 clocking, which gave him another U.S. mark but left him .40 short of Baumann's record.
Though the roar of the crowd held his family spellbound, Wharton was largely unaffected by the poolside pandemonium. He is 50% deaf in each ear and couldn't hear the crowd. Still, he knew what was going on. "I could see my teammates cheering at the end of the lane," he said. Wharton, who will be a freshman at USC this fall, is a top Olympic prospect in both IMs. In the 200 IM he edged American-record holder Pablo Morales to win in 2:02.76.
Since the '84 Olympics, much of the hope for U.S. swimming has been placed on the very broad shoulders of Morales, Biondi, Mitchell and Meagher. Last year this foursome won 10 of the 18 individual medals brought home by U.S. swimmers from the world championships, including four of the five American golds. But all four stars decided to curtail their training after the NCAA meet. Biondi took off for more than two months. Morales skipped nearly three months and graduated from Stanford. Mitchell has been working out once a day but hadn't planned to compete in Fresno. She changed her mind for the chance to "see friends and play." Meagher hasn't trained at all since the NCAAs and doesn't plan to return to the pool until the end of this month.
"I don't think that most people who are going to make up our Olympic team could get away with that," Quick says. "But I'm not worried about those four."
On Thursday night, Biondi dispelled any fears that the U.S. is harboring a bunch of washed-up veterans. In a brief but wonderful 50-meter freestyle race, he beat Tom Jager, the world champ, by .07 to win in 22.33 and equal Biondi's world-best time, which Matt clocked in June 1986. (To set a world record in the 50 free, which was contested at a world championship for the first time last year, FINA, the organization that controls international swimming, has declared that someone will have to swim at least .01 faster than 22.33. Since no one has done that, there is no world record in the 50.)
On Friday the old folks continued to roll as Mitchell won the 100 backstroke in 1:02.30, fastest in the world this year. Morales held off Biondi in the 100 fly, edging him 53.74 to 53.91. Those were the two fastest 100-fly times of 1987. But the evening was dominated by Evans.
Her record in the 1,500 was voted the meet's top performance. For all the records and national titles, Evans said what she would remember most about the meet was the crowd. "I'm serious," she said. "It was neat the way the people acted, so friendly and always cheering."
And Janet Evans, who brought the crowd in Fresno to its feet, will be what those cheering people remember most fondly about Fresno.