Q&A: Janet Evans on training, trials and the inevitable doping questions

Here are excerpts from our conversation with four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans, who will make her return to elite competition after a 15-year absence this weekend at the Austin Grand Prix (you can read our full feature on Evans' comeback bid here):

Question from Bonnie D. Ford: I take it you've given some thought to what it's going to be like to be on the pool deck with all these elite swimmers again, in a swimsuit as opposed to street clothes?

Answer from Evans: It's kind of strange. It's not daunting, but it's like 'OK, wow, I'm really doing this.' I'm used to sitting up in the bleachers and coming down and saying "Hi" to them. Mark [Schubert] was teasing me the other day, because our caps are green, and I was saying, "I don't want to wear a green cap. I want to be more incognito." And Mark was like, "I don't think you're gonna be incognito. I don't think wearing a different color cap is gonna make you disappear in the crowd."

Q: Speaking of Mark, how critical was his ability and willingness to coach you to this endeavor? Could you have done this with any other coach?

A: Mark's never really left my life. He and I are very close. We understand each other very well. I think at this point, he's the only person who could have mentally -- I mean, physically, I think I know enough about myself and my body, I know how I feel in the water; physically, I think I could have trained with a lot of coaches. Mentally and emotionally, I think I needed Mark ... It's a comfortable relationship where I can tell him how I feel in the water and he understands it. I think another thing that's really helped us is that his daughter has two kids that are our kids' age, and he understands if I have to stay up with one of the kids.

Q: What are your expectations of this first meet?

A: I just want to see what I can do. I want to get up in the blocks. I would really love to make Olympic trials. I don't really have that many expectations. I just want to swim faster than I did against the Masters swimmers in June.

Q: In which event do you have a better shot of making the trials qualifying time?

A: I think maybe the 800. The 400, it depends how much speed I can find.

Q: Let's say you're successful. There's a big difference between that and then making the [Olympic] team and then being competitive at an Olympics. It's hard for me to imagine you being "just happy to be there." How are you navigating that mentally?

A: Look, I have no illusions that I'm going to jump in the pool and go an 8:25. That's OK. If I can improve dramatically from where I was in June, it's only January, I feel like the improvement continues. Every week, it goes better for me at workout. It's almost like baby steps a little bit, big baby steps because we don't have that much time. There's a medium middle ground for me that I'm going to be really happy with in Austin, and then we'll go from there. I need to go faster than I did in June, but I don't need to go an 8:25. Somewhere in there will show me the improvement, show me what I need to work on. It's been six months since June. Let's see what happens, and then we have another six months. I just have to make those trials cuts.

Q: You're swimming at a weight that's a lot closer to your teenage weight than your 1996 weight.

A: I'm higher in the water, and most importantly, my stroke is driven by my tempo, and when I'm heavier, I can't get my tempo going. That was one of Mark's big things, he said, "I always wanted to coach you at your fighting weight," which was like 100. Right now, I'm about 108. I was about 112 when this started. ... It's kind of fun to be so fit, that's the best part of it. My strength-to-weight ratio is really good. I feel really strong. I recover better when my weight's good. My tempo's really good in practice. Because my weight's down, I can spend a little more time on literally being in the weight room or swim a little more, something I wasn't able to do toward end of my career.

Q: You were very outspoken about doping back in the day and you competed against swimmers who doped. People are a lot more cynical now than they were then. Are you ready for those questions, that you can't possibly be doing this at 40 after having two kids?

A: Yeah, I totally am. But you know what, I've had that my whole life. I had people telling me I was doing drugs when I was 16 and I weighed 99 pounds, so it's inevitable. Any time an athlete reaches some level of success, people think they're not doing it naturally. Sure, I'm ready for it. I'm a girl who swam against the East Germans, so I'm hypersensitive to it, because they were cheating, as we all unfortunately know now. It's not something I've ever been interested in or wanted to try or do; it's not worth it to me. I'm ready. [Laughs] I'm ready.

Q: You had a very busy life leading up to this. What did you have to give up in order to do this?

A: My girlfriends laugh at me because sometimes I don't look pretty. I get to preschool with hair dripping wet, don't have on a stitch of makeup, in sweats. Little crazy things during the day don't go the way I want them to because I'm a little frazzled. It all works. Most of all, I miss sleep. Mark's always on me to get more sleep. But I'd rather get up early and spend time with my kids. [Corporate and motivational] speaking and all that stuff, we'll be careful the next couple of months because I'm training. I haven't had a vacation in year and a half, but that can all come later. Right now, my focus is my children and swimming and my family. Somehow, it's all clicking.