Olympic Flame still Burns for Champion Janet Evans

The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. What sports fan can forget the old network Olympic promos showing the defeated skier helicoptering out of control off the deck of the alpine jump? And what swim fan could keep a dry eye in 1996 when watching swimming legend Janet Evans pass the Olympic Torch in Atlanta’s opening ceremonies to the greatest champion of all time, Muhammed Ali?

Hours ago in Tucson, I had the privilege of meeting Janet Evans and listening to her speak about her rise to Olympic fame and the hard lessons she learned along the way. The five-time Olympic medalist retired from swimming after her third Olympics in 1996. Though she came home without a medal that year, she came home feeling like a champion for the first time. Today, she champions the cause of being a champion by inspiring audiences of business people and young swimmers alike.

It took Evans three Olympics to know the difference between being a winner and being a champion. A champion, she says, is someone who does their best and is proud of the results. A champion, she says, never allows themselves to be hurt by another person’s words. A champion, she says, is someone who can draw from personal experiences to become an inspiration to others.

Janet quit the sport of swimming after a disappointing second Olympic games in 1992, from which she came home with “only”one gold and one silver. The gold she had won handily with a five-second lead in the 800 free. The media’s response: “Why were you slower than in 1988?” When she was out-touched in the final two meters in the 400, she kicked herself for not having listened to her coach’s advice before the race, and couldn’t even look at her medal for years. In Janet’s words, she hadn’t “retired” from the sport, as retirement is something one does with grace. She had quit. Or in swimmer speak, thrown in the towel. She was lured back to the sport only by her coach’s challenge that she needed to learn how to become a champion. Over the next four years, she retrained her mind to focus on working hard and enjoying the journey vs. just winning.

For Janet, the most memorable moment as an Olympian had nothing to do with bringing home four golds and a silver; it was having the honor of carrying that torch in Atlanta before her peers and a billion viewers. It was an honor she accepted reluctantly, afraid the run might strain her legs and prevent her from peak performances during her events. She worried about falling and catching the stadium on fire. Suddenly, the moment came when Evander Holyfield was lighting her torch. The eyes of the entire world were on Janet and the champion’s flame inside of her ignited. As she ran with the torch, smiling that big bright smile of hers, it was the first time, she said, that she realized she was only one of 10,000 athletes on the field who had sacrificed so much to be there. Looking out into the faces of those athletes, she realized the vast majority of them would go home without medals. Yet they were there, representing their countries, their families and their friends, just as she was. She had come to win. But at the moment, she realized in her heart for the first time, that being an Olympic champion wasn’t about winning at all.

Two days later, when Janet swam in the preliminaries for her favorite event, the 400 m free, she qualified 9th. Not good enough to make finals. The best she could do in the 800 m free was 6th. And yet Janet didn’t experience the agony of defeat as she had in 1992. Instead, she experienced the elation of knowing she had done her best, and she was proud to have done it. She had discovered a new-found confidence that she would carry with her for a lifetime. She had accomplished the goal she had set out to accomplish: She had learned how to become a champion. Nothing any reporter could say could take that feeling away. Janet was finally a champion. And she’s still demonstrating it today.

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