Coming home from swim meets with a bagful of medals is nothing new to Janet Evans. She has been doing it since she was 10. Nor is she unaccustomed to dealing with the media. At 17 she's an old hand at that. But nothing in her experience had prepared her for the tidal wave of attention that engulfed her upon her return from Seoul.
Janet was determined to treat the Olympics, in which she won three individual gold medals (400 free, 800 free and 400 individual medley), as just another meet. Her plan was to arrive surreptitiously at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday, Sept. 26, drive straight home to Placentia, Calif., rest on Tuesday, return to classes at El Dorado High on Wednesday and, in short order, slip quietly into the routine of a normal high school senior. She would be "just Janet" again, if it killed her. She would hang out with her girlfriends, study with her boyfriend, catch up on the school work she had missed, and in a couple of weeks resume her training routine at the Independence Park Pool in nearby Fullerton.
The first glitch in Operation Just Janet was the presence of the media at the airport. She thought no one knew when she was returning, but when she stepped off United Flight 90 from Tokyo at 1:15 in the afternoon, she was greeted by three television cameras and a handful of reporters and photographers. Escorted by a burly uniformed security guard, she smiled, waved once and approached the TV crews waiting for her at the head of a long ramp, lights on and microphones at the ready. To their amazement, Janet walked right past the cameras, head down and moving fast toward the nearest exit.
Naturally, the crews followed her, lugging their minicams and cables. They were on the verge of losing sight of their quarry when John Marshall, a newsman 'for KNBC-TV, resorted to the oldest ploy in the journalist's manual. "The best way to get rid of us, Janet, is to stop and talk for a minute," he called after her. It worked.
She suddenly dropped the rock-star act and became a schoolgirl again, the same one who had delighted television audiences from Korea to Kansas with her big smile, her happy giggle and her lion-sized heart. She stopped, faced the lights and the cameras and pleasantly answered questions for several minutes. She even dug around in her bag and pulled out one of the blue velvet cases that held her medals when someone asked to see them.
Janet's second surprise was a block party in front of the Evans house on Brower Street. Enterprising neighbors had organized a barbecue, complete with banners and balloons, in her honor. "None of us wanted her to come home to nothing after all that she has been through," said Sharon Holt, who lives across the street. "Janet is such a nice girl."
As the Evanses' car turned onto Brookhaven Avenue in Placentia, a police motorcycle escort joined them, and when the motorcade turned onto Brower, children from the elementary school at the end of the block fell in behind on foot and bicycle. Before long, 500 people were milling around on the street in front of No. 424, and Janet, still in her traveling clothes, was signing autographs and taking the little ones upstairs to show them her medals. "She stood there and signed autographs and smiled all the time," said Susie Buchan from next door. "Most people would just go inside." A sign on the Buchans' lawn read JANET FOR MAYOR.
The block party may have been a small-town celebration, but three gold medals made it big-town news. Between 3 p.m., when the party began, and 9 p.m., when it finally broke up under a big yellow moon, Janet did a total of nine radio and television interviews. One of them was a chat via satellite with NBC's Bryant Gumbel in Seoul.
Saying no to the media was the job of her mother, Barbara, but as long as the requests were reasonable, she rarely did. "I know they have their jobs to do," said Barbara. "The easier we make it for them, the easier it will be for us."
Therefore, when Janet stumbled downstairs in her nightshirt at 11:30 on Tuesday morning, after having slept for 13½ hours, she found a reporter and a photographer waiting in the kitchen amid wilting bouquets and shrunken balloons. She retreated. Tuesday was supposed to be the day of rest, but it didn't look as if it would turn out that way. The phone had been ringing every five minutes since early morning, and the calendar was filling fast. CNN wanted to film her departure for school the next morning. The Tonight Show wanted her for Oct. 12. The White House was penciled in for sometime that same week. Disneyland was planning an appreciation day. The Fullerton Chamber of Commerce would hold a breakfast on Oct. 6. On Oct. 8 she would be grand marshal of Placentia's Heritage Days parade.
Janet was not happy with the way things were going. Aaron Behle, her boyfriend, was having a hard time dealing with her celebrity. She was sympathetic. "It's embarrassing for him," she said. Janet was also apprehensive about going back to school. "I know my friends will treat me normally," she said, "but I wish everybody would." At one point on Tuesday afternoon, she jumped to her feet, grabbed the waistband of the red miniskirt she was wearing and spun it around where her hips ought to be. "My skirt is so loose, I'm afraid to weigh myself," she said.
"She was very homesick," said her father, Paul, a veterinarian. "She's been away since early August, and there's been a lot of pressure and tension. Her mother worries about her health. Janet made me promise not to tell her mother that she's lost weight. She should weigh 105. But she'll gain it back, if she doesn't burn it up first. She has a high metabolism and no tolerance for sitting."
Neither the food nor the accommodations in Seoul were to Janet's liking. "I'd sit in my room in the [athletes'] village—no carpet, the beds were hard, the sheets were like paper," she said, shuddering. "I slept on my towel every night, and the whole city smells like kimchi. I'd think about home, and it felt like the day would never come."
On Wednesday, Operation Just Janet broke down completely. The administrators at El Dorado High had planned to give her two days to settle in before holding a special assembly, which would be open to the press, for her on Friday. The student council, composed of Janet's best friends and led by Behle, who is both student body president and winner of the school's Mr. GQ contest ("talent, looks and poise"), had reluctantly agreed to the plan. It was the council's sworn mission to shield Janet from anything it deemed to be not "normal."
But the school's administrators, swamped with requests from the press for access to Janet on her first day back, succumbed to the pressure and scheduled two-minute photo sessions to take place during her first-period senior honors English class. They also granted the media permission to film and interview at will during her lunch period in an area known as senior quad. Problems arose when the administrators neglected to tell her student council protectors about the change in plans.
The English class was a failure from everybody's point of view. As students discussed a brief writing assignment, ''Me at 35," which had been designed to accustom seniors, who would soon be tackling college-application essays, to writing about themselves, a steady stream of strange adults shuttled in and out of the room. Janet, second row from the right, third desk back, watched the absurd parade in wide-eyed wonder.
But if first period was absurd, lunch-time was surreal. The students, urged on by their student council leaders, who thought they had been betrayed by the administration, took their revenge on the 30 or so press people who showed up. Girls stood in front of photographers to block their shots, and boys shouted. "Leave her alone." When a school security guard known as Rambo chased a photographer from a low wall, where he had been shooting Janet surrounded by her friends, the crowd erupted into cheers of approval.
Through it all, Janet looked as though she wished she were back in Seoul, kimchi or no kimchi. She sat staring at the ground, pale and close to tears. The two sides of her world, which she had always been able to keep separate, at least in her own mind, had finally collided.
Later that day, she sat at a corner table in a shopping-center pizza parlor and looked back on the events of the morning. "Every time I say I want to be like everybody else, somebody says, 'Well, you're not going to be,' " she said. "I realize that now. I'm not going to be like everybody else. It finally hit me. I just won't. It's like I know I won't be but somehow still wish I could be." Epiphanies sometimes occur when and where they are least expected, even in pizza parlors on September afternoons.
"Up till now she has learned to deal with everything at swimming meets and around swimming people." said Barbara. "It's been really difficult for her at school. This week has been a big step in the direction of dealing with it in front of her nonswimming peers."
Thursday was a day for settling down. The phone stopped ringing off the wall at 424 Brower, and El Dorado became a high school again rather than a photo opportunity. Janet went to four classes in the morning and spent her lunch hour talking to friends in peace. On Friday she reaped the first harvest of her newfound fame—she got to deejay a morning rock show on KROQ. the FM station of choice among Southern California teenagers. "It was really fun," she said, her brown eyes lighting up.
Back at El Dorado, the assembly came off without a hitch. Janet was up on stage at the west end of the gymnasium, and the 1,450-member student body lined the bleachers on either side. As videotapes of each of her three races flickered on screens scattered around the gym, the audience cheered as if it were watching them for the first time. After each race, the school band played NBC's Olympic theme, and a spotlight shone on a gold banner bearing her name and the event. It wasn't Seoul, but the little girl with the big smile didn't seem to care. She didn't even mind being the center of attention again. She was Just Janet, but different.