On August 20, 1989, Janet Evans set the world record in the 800-meter freestyle. It would endure as one of the longest-standing records in swimming history, not to be broken until the 2008 Summer Olympics. This 800-meter record was the second longest standing in swimming history. Although Evans’ small stature and unorthodox windmill stroke made her an unconventional champion, she retired from the sport as the greatest female distance swimmer of all time. “I never saw myself as being small,” Evans once told Sports Illustrated. “Size doesn’t matter as long as you can get to the end of the pool faster than everybody else.”
Evans was born in Fullerton, CA on August 28, 1971 and started winning national championships at age 11. Between 1988 and 1994, she became the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic and world swimming championship titles. She was also a twelve-time winner of the 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle events at the U.S National Championships. No other swimmer won this many titles in the competition’s 100-year history. Before retiring her racing goggles, Evans had scored four individual Olympic gold medals and one silver medal, while also breaking seven world records. For Evans, humility and support from her family were what kept her strong through her professional swimming career. “Swimming for me was always a personal journey, it wasn’t for anyone else,” she said in an August 2016 interview.
At Evans’ final Olympics in 1996, she had the honor of handing off the Olympic torch to American boxing legend, Muhammad Ali. In an August 2016 interview, Evans spoke of that historical Atlanta Summer Olympics moment: “It was amazing, it was my defining Olympic moment. For me, it transcended sport because it was that moment I realized it was okay not to win, you know he was sick, he had courage and he was there inspiring people.”
Since retirement, she has been a motivational speaker and competed on the NBC show, “Celebrity Circus.” Serving as the vice chair of the LA2024 committee, she successfully won Los Angeles the bid to host the 2024 Olympics. Now future championship swimmers will get the chance to score Olympic gold in her home state.