OMAHA, Neb. -- Janet Evans stepped on the blocks, heard a big cheer and realized that she was more than twice as old as every other swimmer in her heat except one.
"They were closer in age to Syd than me," the 40-year-old Evans said with a smile, referring to her 5-year-old daughter Sydney.
But this is 2012, not the 1990s. The queen of distance swimming was far off the pace in her return to the U.S. Olympic trials on Tuesday, failing to qualify for the final of the 400-meter freestyle.
Evans finished 80th among 113 swimmers in the event in which she won one of her three gold medals as a 16-year-old phenom at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. She added a silver medal in the 1992 Barcelona Games.
"I didn't drown," she said, laughing. "That's good."
Evans was smiling and joking after changing out of her black bodysuit. She had no illusions about a comeback she began last year after 15 years away from the pool.
"I realized a long time ago I wasn't going to get to the Olympics," she said. "The end goal was to be here."
Looking around at the nervous youngsters who waited with her for their heat, Evans' mind wandered.
"I thought, 'It's kind of strange that I'm here swimming,' " she said. "It took a lot of courage. It would have been easy to be that girl who shows up and sits in the stands."
The fans in the stands cheered Evans as she was introduced during the race and again afterward as she walked off the deck smiling.
"I was like, 'Are they cheering for me?' " she said. "That is so cool."
Evans finished in 4 minutes, 21.49 seconds, having been fifth during her heat before fading to seventh. Allison Schmitt, a 22-year-old, won the evening final to make her second straight Olympic team.
"I'm not going to go back to my room and cry," said Evans, who was headed out to lunch with her daughter and 2-year-old son, Jake.
Her longtime coach, Mark Schubert, responded, "I'm going to go back to my room and cry."
He was only half-joking. Schubert has been with Evans since her earliest days and their relationship has evolved from coach and swimmer into close and trusted friends.
"We both expected better," he said of Evans' performance. "The more racing she could do, the better she would do. The 800 will be better than this."
Evans will be back in the pool on Saturday for prelims in the 800 free, her signature event in which she became the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic and world titles.
"I need to re-group," she said. "I hope to go somewhere in the 8:30s."
Evans' supporters included her parents and two kids, who ended up in the hotel room next to hers, which made for some hectic moments on Monday when she should have been resting. Her husband, Billy Willson, plans to be on hand for the 800 free.
She stashes her five Olympic medals -- four gold and one silver -- at her parents' California home, never pulling them out or watching old videos of her races.
She's too busy living in the present, being a full-time mom in between working for her sponsors and giving motivational speeches.
If Evans doesn't make the 800 free final -- and again, she's a long shot -- her comeback will end with no regrets.
"We have an agreement," Schubert said. "The project is over, but boy has it been a blast. Not many coaches get a chance to do this."