Janet Evans did not breathe once over the final 15 yards of the 500-yard freestyle final last Thursday at the NCAA women's championships in Austin, Texas. The crowd was doing all the gasping as it became clear that Tracy Caulkins's U.S. record of 4:36.25, which had stood since 1979, was about to fall. "I didn't want it" to be a 4:36.26," said Evans. "So I put my head down and gave it all I had."
As usual, that was more than enough. She swam the final 100 yards in an astonishing 54.20 to finish in 4:34.39, eight yards ahead of Florida's Whitney Hedgepeth. Evans turned to the Stanford rooting section at the Texas Swimming Center and was saluted by a small forest of green mittens shaped like redwood trees, the precise significance of which, Evans later admitted, she did not know. The redwood is part of the Stanford insignia, but you can forgive Evans this Cardinal sin. She's only a freshman.
What a week it was, even by Evans's standards. Last Monday she was in Indianapolis to pick up the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete of 1989. "I was really, really, super, honored to receive that award," said Evans, who earned it for breaking her own world record in the 800-meter freestyle with a time of 8:16.22 and setting American records in the 1,000-yard free (9:25.49) and 1,650-yard free (15:44.98). "But I knew I had to block it out of my head."
On Friday night Evans took aim at another long-standing Caulkins U.S. record—4:04.63 in the 400-yard individual medley. Although Evans came up short, her time of 4:07.59 was an NCAA mark and the second-fastest 400-yard IM performance ever. She concluded the night by anchoring Stanford to a come-from-behind win in the 800-yard free relay. In the 1,650 the next night, Evans started cautiously but turned it on after the midway mark and finished in 15:39.14, well under her previous record. At the end of the meet she was named NCAA Swimmer of the Year.
March 26, 1990
Evans works earnestly at keeping things in perspective—at being, as she likes to put it, "just Janet." She chose Stanford over Texas and Florida partly because the California school doesn't have athletic dorms. "I have to be a non-swimmer some of the time," she says.
"It's really like living with a normal person," says Evans's roommate, Benny Sandoval. "I know she's special, but she's also really normal."
O.K., in many ways Evans acts like the 18-year-old she is. She likes Depeche Mode and The Cure. She hasn't declared a major but suspects it will be communications. During interviews she bites her nails—which in Austin were a pale pink—or chews meditatively on a lock of hair. But normal? That's asking a lot from someone who signed her first autograph at 15. "It was really weird when that started," she says, "because I thought I was one of those little kids."
The day before she received the Sullivan Award, Evans tried to work out at the Indiana University Natatorium, where, it turned out, several high school swimmers were warming up for the state meet. "We tried to sneak her in unobtrusively," says Evans's mother, Barbara. "But one kid spotted her, and there was a mob scene." Another enterprising lad swam in the lane next to hers, holding his shirt aloft to keep it dry until she could sign it. "I've never seen this sort of star quality before," says Jeff Dimond, the p.r. director for U.S. Swimming, "and I'm not sure I want to live through it again. On the other hand, I can't wait to get another athlete like this."
Evans is part of what may be the finest freshman class ever assembled. "Stanford got the best breaststroker, the best backstroker, the best butterflyer and Janet Evans out of high school," said ESPN commentator John Naber, a four-time Olympic gold medalist. Indeed, though Evans earned 60 points with her three victories, she had to share the high-point award with classmate Janel Jorgensen, who won the 200 IM and the two butterfly events, the 100 and 200, and swam in three relays.
Jorgensen's victory in the 100 fly pushed defending champion Stanford ahead of Texas on Friday night. The Cardinal's lead reached 45.5 points after the 1,650, but the Longhorns slowly narrowed the gap. Going into the final event—the 400-yard freestyle relay on Saturday night—Texas led Stanford by 1½ points. Whoever finished higher in that race would win the meet, a fact that pleased Longhorn coach Mark Schubert immensely. "Sprint power," he said. "We love it."
Texas would be crazy not to, with an anchor like Leigh Ann Fetter, the American-record holder in the 50-yard free. "She's a drop-dead sprinter," said Evans earlier that evening, after watching Fetter win the 100-yard free in 48.48. "She's the complete opposite of me. I can't swim the 50 for my life."
That isn't the only difference between these two swimmers. Fetter, a 20-year-old junior from Louisville, didn't swim competitively until she was 16. And Fetter was far from an instant success. At 17, the age at which Evans won three gold medals at the Seoul Olympics, Fetter finished 39th in the 50-yard free at the Junior Olympics-East with a time of 28.09. On top of that, the result sheet listed her as Leigh Fatter.
What's in a name? In this case, absolutely nothing. Fetter carries 144 pounds of lean muscle on her 5'11" frame. "I don't think she has an ounce of fat on her," says 28-year-old Jill Sterkel, an assistant coach at Texas who is also Fetter's training partner. "You can see every muscle in her body. She has an incredible build."
Even more remarkable is Fetter's ability to see the future in dreams. Two years ago she dreamed she would finish second in the 50-meter free at the Olympic trials, and she did. The part she did not foresee was that Angel Myers, who had beaten Fetter, would test positive for steroids and be disqualified. Fetter thus became the top sprinter on the U.S. Olympic team, and her time of 25.50 at the trials became the American record. In Seoul she dreamed that one U.S. sprinter would finish third and one fifth, but she couldn't tell which of the two she would be. As it turned out, Sterkel collected the bronze, and Fetter came in fifth.
Last October, Fetter dreamed about the 50-yard free at the NCAA meet. "It was kind of scary," she says. "It was kind of verbatim. I saw 21, but I didn't see the tenths or the hundredths." Getting down in the 21's seemed like a dream, all right; Fetter's U.S. mark was 22.05.
Fetter churned through last Thursday's prelims and then looked up at the scoreboard. The time, including the tenths and hundredths, was crystal clear: 21.92. Ten years after Sterkel had broken the 23-second barrier, Fetter had broken the 22-second barrier. "I was pleased," Fetter said after winning the final in 22.12. "Actually, I was in shock. I started bawling when I got alone."
Sterkel is sure there's more to come. "The 21.92 was solid, but it wasn't anything special," she said. "Leigh's definitely capable of going 21.5 or better."
Fetter's speed almost got her in trouble in the final relay. She started behind the anchors for both Stanford and Florida but used a furious pace—almost too furious—to pull ahead of them in the first 25 yards. She had to hang on but touched first, in 3:17.23, with Stanford third, behind Florida. Her split was 48.2. The Longhorns had edged the Cardinal, 632 to 622.5.
Fetter was asked if she had had any dreams about the relays. She smiled and said, "Relays kind of take care of themselves."