Olympic swimming great Janet Evans realized something while she ran the final leg of the torch relay to open the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
She almost turned down the chance. But a look at the crowd, especially the athletes who had little chance of medaling, as she ran around the track proved an eye-opening lesson.
“Even though it was my third Olympics, I saw the athletes for the first time,” she said. “I saw the athletes NBC does not tell us about. They don’t go there to win like I was focused on. They go to do their best and represent their country.”
She did not win a medal then but left pleased she raced her best at that point in her Hall of Fame career, which includes five Olympic medals (four golds), 45 national titles and seven world records.
It was the same attitude Evans, 41, had when she came out of retirement for the 2012 Olympic trials but did not make the U.S. team.
That attempt means as much to her now as the 1988 medley medal she passed around to the crowd of about 375 at Cheyenne Mountain High School on Saturday. The mother of two and motivational speaker spreads that message weekly to aspiring swimmers around the country.
“It is great to win but even greater to do your best,” she said. “We can do anything we want and do our best if we put our minds to it.”
Most of the crowd wasn’t born when the then-16-year-old with an unorthodox whirlwind stroke won gold medals in the 400-meter freestyle, 400 individual medley and 800 freestyle at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. She added a gold in the 800 and silver in 400 freestyle four years later.
The International Swimming and U.S. Olympic Hall of Famer’s 1,500 world record stood for 20 years, her 800 for 21 years, and her 400 for 19, making them some of the longest-standing ever in swimming.
“She reminded us it’s important to remember you are doing this for fun,” Cheyenne Mountain junior Kristina Kimball said. “She showed you can have fun and still develop a strong work ethic.”
“That’s an important message for kids to hear, even more so now than during her (Evans’) time,” Cheyenne Mountain Aquatics club coach Joe Novak said. “We all get caught up in winning and sometimes you learn more by handling defeat.”
The message sunk in.
“I liked how she valued going to the trials as much as winning the gold medals,” said Abby Sweeney, 10, of Explorer Elementary School. “That inspires me because you can’t win every race but you can still keep working to do your best like she did.”