Farewell, Old Friend

By Tito Morales

LOS ANGELES, Calif., May 19. A dear friend moved away last week.

She’d lived with us for a long, long time. There were hints over the years that she might one day leave, this devoted companion. But at the end of each summer, as long course season slowly dissolved into the smaller pools of fall, she would still be there – just where she’d always been, and exactly where we half assumed she’d always be.

When Laure Manaudou broke Janet Evans’ 400 meters freestyle world record at the French Championships on May 12th, it signaled the end of a reign. For nearly 18 years women’s distance swimming had been ruled by the House of Evans, and despite periodic challenges to her monarchy Evans’ place on the throne was unconquerable.

Enormous Footprints

Evans set her world record at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. The time, 4:03.85, was as improbable as any other storied statistic in American sport – from Chamberlain’s 100 points scored in a single game, to DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, to Beamon's other worldly leap of 29 ft. 2-1/2 in Mexico City.

The mark was one of three freestyle world records which Evans set in a remarkable 11-month stretch. The other two, no less astonishing, were in the 800 meters, 8:16.22, and the 1,500 meters, 15:52.10.

Evans' records were like meticulously handcrafted sandcastles, replete with towers, spires, and drawbridges. The swimming community understood that they would one day disappear – after all, nothing in sport lasts forever – but awakening to discover that one had indeed finally been reclaimed by the sea still produced something of a start.

Evans’ performances left such enormous footprints that they seemed to be as much a part of the record books as the ink, the paper and the binding.

They weathered a storm of technological innovation, such as pop-up pools, designed to make each pool length as flat as a glass tabletop, and modern swimwear, fashioned to turn even the mildest of competitive swimmers into aquatic superheroes. They endured a dramatic globalization of the sport, in which elite level swimming spilled well beyond the borders of the select few traditional powerhouses. And they even survived performance enhancing drug use, not only from the Chinese swimmers who emerged from some clandestine laboratory in the mid to late 1990’s, but also from Ireland’s notorious Michelle Smith who, at the height of her cheating prowess during the Atlanta Olympics, could only manage a 4:07.25 in the 400 meters freestyle.

Ironically, Evans’ standards were so far ahead of their time that she, too, was the subject of accusatory whispers and unfounded innuendo. All one had to do, though, was look at her diminutive 5’4, 100 lb. frame to know that such poppycock was about as credible as the moon being made of cheese.

True Staying Power

When Evans touched the wall for gold in Seoul on that bright, sunny afternoon on September 22, 1988, she had little reason to suspect that she’d just covered the distance faster than she would ever do so again. After all, she’d just turned 17 years old and it was clear from her unflagging motivation that there would be at least one more Olympic Games in her future. She’d first taken possession of the record the year before, when she’d clocked a 4:05.45. The 4:03.85, she probably reasoned, was just part of a natural progression. Perhaps in 1989 she would be able to clock a 4:01; and then, maybe a year or two after that, if she continued to train hard and make strength gains, she might just have a legitimate chance at attacking the 4:00 mark.

But even though Evans continued to compete until 1996, she would never cover 8 laps in a 50 meter pool quite that fast again – which, as it turns out, was nothing to be ashamed about since nobody else would be able to do so either for some two decades.

Curiously, it took about 18 years for Evans to catch up with the world's best male 400 meters swimmers – the men’s world record in August of 1970 was 4:02.8 – and it took roughly the same amount of time for the rest of the women to finally catch up with Evans.

It is a fundamental tenet of competitive swimming: world records will fall. And this, unfortunately, is both a blessing and a curse for our sport since the frequency with which records are toppled tends to dilute their significance – especially to the outside world. There is rarely, if ever, a major international competition during which some kind of world record is not set.

This axiom, though, makes Evans’ trio of distance freestyle marks all the more extraordinary. Evans blew the walls off the pool; she exploded a universe consisting of hundredths and tenths of a second into one of generations. Her records not only outlasted years, they outlasted Olympiads – four of them, to be precise.

Not even the mighty Mark Spitz could lay claim to such staying power, as the last of his world records was erased in 1977, just five years after his retirement.

And, to put things into still further perspective, on the very next day after Evans set her record Germany’s Uwe Dassler broke the world record in the men’s version of the race. In stark contrast to Evans’ mark, Dassler's record has been lowered eight times since.

Gone, but Not Forgotten

Most of today’s current crop of stars had not yet discovered water when Evans was at the peak of her majestic powers. Michael Phelps was three years old when Evans competed in Seoul. Katie Hoff wasn’t even a year old. And Manaudou, the woman who at long last seized one of Evans’ cherished records, had not yet turned two.

Now that Evans’ mystique has been solved in the 400 meters, it seems only a matter of time before someone comes along to do the same in the longer events. As difficult as it may be to imagine to those who witnessed her inspired swimming in action, there will be a day, perhaps in the not too distant future, when the name of Janet Evans will be completely erased from the record books.

Part of the wistfulness we now feel is surely due to the fact that those who watched her race understood that Evans competed with as much heart as any athlete in history. Her technique was far from ideal – her turnover was about as preposterous as the beat of a hummingbird's wing – but she more than made up for any lack of aesthetics with a tenacious determination that moved mountains.

Evans’ records were evidence, proof positive, that what could be accomplished between the lanelines was far more than any of us ever dreamed was possible.

It’s unfortunate that great records cannot be more like great art. Unlike Puccini arias, Van Gogh oil paintings or Michelangelo sculptures, they can never completely slip into the realm of immortality. They can’t be reinterpreted, remastered or resurrected. Once they are gone, in fact, their relevance tends to fade as quickly as the setting sun.

A dear friend moved away last week. She was a best of friend. The kind of woman you could always rely upon – someone who was always there through thick and thin. And I, for one, am pretty certain that I’m going to miss her.

Farewell, old friend. It was truly a pleasure having known you…

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