Janet Evans qualifies for Olympic trials

AUSTIN, Texas -- Just as she did in the old days, Janet Evans pulled away from the field, won a race and achieved a goal.

At 40 years of age, the four-time Olympic gold medalist has qualified to swim at the U.S. Olympic trials in June, clocking 4 minutes, 17.27 seconds in a preliminary heat of the 400-meter freestyle at the Austin Grand Prix on Friday. That easily brought her in under the qualifying standard of 4:19.39 for the Olympic trials.

"I'm super excited to make my trials cut, that was my goal, to go 4:19, so to go 4:17 is a bonus," an exuberant Evans, who won her heat by more than 5 seconds, told reporters. "My only disappointment was that once again, I took my race out and looked around in the first 50 (meters) and there was no one there. We came here for some competition. Obviously I'll be swimming against some girls that are going about the same times tonight.

"And I'm really excited too, because the 400 isn't as much of my focus as the 800, so I'm looking forward to that in a couple of days."

In the evening "B" final, Evans swam a 4:18.15, almost a second slower than her morning time but still well under the trials qualifying standard.

"I just felt a little stiff,'' she said. "But I'm happy. Good day. Everything accomplished. I went all out this morning to make it.''

Evans added that it was good to have swimmers closer to her than they were in the morning but "hard to see them go by.''

Allison Schmitt of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club won the "A" final in 4:05.90, finally breaking the pool record of 4:06.43 Evans set here in the 1988 Olympic Trials.

Evans, a married mother of two, will race in the 800 here on Sunday. She last faced elite competition in the 1996 Olympics, her third and final appearance on that stage. Her world records in the 400 and 800, set in 1988 and 1989, stood until 2006 and 2008 respectively.

Evans began training in late 2010 under her former coach Mark Schubert at the Golden West Club in Huntington Beach, Calif. She competed in two Masters meets last summer, setting age group world records in both of her former specialties, the 400 and 800 freestyle events.

She came into this meet seeded 51st in the 400 with a time of 4:22.87. Her time on Friday morning was 15th-best in the preliminary heats.

There was little fanfare when Evans got into the starting blocks in Lane 4 at the Lee & Joe Jamail Swimming Center on the campus of the University of Texas. She was the top-seeded swimmer in the 'B,' or second-tier preliminary heats, on Friday, and a couple of the other athletes in her heat were less than half her age. On the wall above the blocks, the pool's record board for races held there still bears her name and times in the 400 and 800.

In fact, it was a familiar venue for Evans, who swam for Schubert at Texas for two years. But she admitted to having considerable nerves before her start.

"I'm usually that spectator in the stands these days, and now I'm down here with all the young kids, all the kids I've been watching swim all these years," Evans said. "It just feels a little bit out of my element. But I kept remembering, 'I've been here, I've done this, I can't forget what I've done, I have done this before,' and it all kind of comes back. I'm just getting back in the saddle a little bit."

Still, she felt self-conscious and wondered whether some younger swimmers would see her and, in her words, ask "'What is she doing? Like, why is she here? This is crazy.'" So Evans squirreled herself away in a quiet corner of the complex to wait for her event, all alone -- until teen superstar Missy Franklin walked in and sat down and they exchanged hellos.

"We really didn't say anything to each other, but I felt like, this is really interesting, this amazing phenom is sitting here next to me, and it was inspiring to me," Evans said. "It put me at ease and peace, and she didn't ask me what I was doing here. And I went, 'OK, this is all going to be OK.' It was like this weird karma thing. I think she's incredible. I love her attitude and her positive energy, and maybe that vibed over me."

Evans went out fast -- her first 100-meter split was a 1:02:06 -- and although her pace slowed thereafter, she still led the heat by a wide margin throughout.

Schubert, who correctly predicted Evans' time in the 400 when she asked him to make a guess earlier this week, called the shorter race "preparation" for the 800, and "a bonus activity." It was also, he said, an enormous confidence-booster.

"Her training this fall has been so much better," said Schubert, a former Olympic team and University of Southern California coach and past national team director. "It took her about a year to get to the point where she could train on that kind of level. We still have some time so we'll make some more progress.

"I think the hardest part is probably behind her now. It'll be good to see what she can do in a race nose-to-nose with some other tough girls."

Schubert said he thinks Evans could swim Sunday's 800 in the mid 8:40s, 10 or 15 seconds off the Masters world record of 8:59.06 that she set last June. That would qualify her comfortably for the Olympic trials, where the standard is 8:50.49.

Evans doesn't plan to race again until a meet in Mission Viejo, Calif., close to her home in Laguna Beach, in April. She may enter another meet in Irvine, Calif., in May, but her focus will be on training rather than competing.

The coach likened Evans' weekly schedule -- with pre-dawn wake-up calls most mornings, her family and business commitments -- to "working three jobs." But now as when she was a college swimmer, "I've never had anybody as coachable," Schubert said.

"She'll come in and say, 'I have to get out at 7:10 (a.m.) because I have to be home with my kids,' or 'I have to be at my weight training' -- she weight-trains two or three times a week -- and then we'll be into a set and she goes, 'Can't I just do the rest of it?'" Schubert said. "That's the way she's always been. Obviously 20 years later she's more mature, but she's always had that kind of attitude."

Alexandra Malazdrewicz, 16, of Evergreen, Colo., was one of the teenagers in Evans' preliminary heat and said it was an honor.

"Of course, I knew who she was,'' said Malazdrewicz, who was in Lane 1 and didn't see Evans churning away in front of her; Evans would eventually win the heat by more than 5 seconds. "Once I touched (the wall) and looked up at the times, I said 'There would be Janet Evans.'

Laure Manaudou, the French swimmer who broke Evans' world record in the 400 in 2006, didn't swim the event Friday and said she wishes Evans well.

"I hope she succeeds in her comeback,'' Manaudou, now training at Auburn University, told a reporter from the French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe. "It's great, what she's doing. I stopped (swimming) for two and a half years and I know how hard it is to come back. For her at her age, it really takes a lot of courage.''

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.