If there’s a world record, it’s likely that Janet Evans broke it or set it. With her famous unconventional giant windmill stroke, the tiny 5-foot-1-inch, 102-pound swimmer broke the world record in both the 800-meter and 1,500-meter in 1987 at the age of 17.
She’s a small person with unproportional energy and an even bigger list of awards and achievements in her swimming history. Born and raised in California, Evans was a natural swimmer, pushed to learn by her mother so she wouldn’t drown in the backyard pool.
Evans was already competing in her first meet at the age of five. At 15 she was setting records — breaking high school and college times and winning the U.S. Open swim meet. In 1987, the same year she broke the 800- and 1,500-meter records, the American set a new pace for the 400-meter. And at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, she broke her own 400-meter record and took home three gold medals.
A member of Stanford University’s swim team, Evans left the school after new regulation permitted swimmers to train no more than 20 hours a week. In the early 1990s she moved to Texas to train with Mark Schubert for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where she placed first in the 800-meter freestyle, but stepped down to a silver medal in her own event, the 400-meter.
In nine years, Evans won 25 out of 27 major international races at 400-meter, and won 22 out of 23 competitions in the 800-meter. In addition to her Olympic records set in Seoul, she holds world records in the 400-meter (set in Seoul), the 800-meter (set in Tokyo ‘89) and the 1,500-meter (set in Orlando, Fla. ‘88).
She is the only female swimmer to hold three world records concurrently.
In 1993, the Los Angeles Invitational was renamed the Janet Evans Invitational in honor of America’s new little hero. Evans hosts the event every year, in addition to her involvement with the American Diabetes Association and the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, California.
She retired from the swimming scene in 1996. Today, 33-year-old Evans continues to promote swimming and physical fitness while she tours the country as a motivational speaker to Fortune 500 companies. She married Bill Willson in Long Beach, Calif., last year, appropriately at the Aquarium of the Pacific, surrounded by fellow swimming creatures.