Janet Evans began to swim at age 2. She was a natural in the pool. And while she developed an unorthodox windmill motion and was short in stature compared to most elite swimmers of her generation, Evans will be long remembered as one of the best freestyle swimmers ever.
By the end of her career, Evans won five Olympic medals (four golds) and set 45 national titles and set seven world records. Most impressively, her world records in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle races stood for 19, 20 and 21 years, respectively.
Swimming World magazine named her Female World Swimmer of the Year three times and she also won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete.
Evans rose to prominence less than one month after her 17th birthday. As her senior year of high school was starting, Evans traveled to the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games and brought home three gold medals: in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle events and the 400 medley.
Four years later, at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, Evans again captured gold in the 800 free and silver in the 400 free. She would win those two events 12 times each at the national championships, the most ever in one event by any American swimmer.
Her final competition was the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games – where she did not medal but still left with one final memorable moment. It was Evans who carried the Olympic Torch in the Opening Ceremony and handed it off to Muhammad Ali to light the Olympic Flame.
“I ran up that track, and I ran up those three big, long stairways. And I got to the top, and there stood Muhammad Ali. And I never cried after any of my Olympic medals, but I wanted to cry. And my moment with him was brief; you saw how quickly he lit that flame. But that moment for me, standing there, watching this man, with his courage and his determination, and being brought into the Olympic fold once again, 36 years after his gold medal in 1960. And to stand there in front of the world and inspire even more young people like myself, to be and do and accomplish anything we want to do, it was an epiphany for me. It was a defining moment in my Olympic career.
“After those Olympics, I wanted to quit swimming and go back to college, and I don’t know what I wanted to do. But after standing there with that man and watching him, I realized that as an Olympian, as an Olympic champion, a mantle we carry is to inspire and motivate others. And no one has ever done that greater than Muhammad Ali. So, Mr. Ali, thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for allowing me to continue to inspire young swimmers and young people to do and be the very best that they can be as well.”