To see American Janet Evans sandwiched on the medal stand between two much taller East European swimmers is to realize there is still no formula for victory in this sport. Evans's gold medal peformance in the women's 400-meter individual medley and her general prominence in the sport are viewed as an encouraging sign to all those who had begun to feel a little intimidated by the strapping East German women.
Evans, a 17-year-old from Placentia, Calif., is 5 ft., 5 in. and normally 105 pounds, but her coach, Bud McAllister, says she's dropped to 100 since coming to Seoul, maybe because she's been unable to load up on the junk food she so loves. ``Janet's ankles are about as big as my wrists,'' says the lean-looking McAllister.
This is only part of the phenomenon. The other is her success using a fast, stiff-armed stroke that gives her the appearance of flailing away at the water.
It is hardly textbook swimming. Nancy Hogshead, an Olympic gold medalist in 1984 and an NBC commentator here, says most coaches shudder to think of Evans conducting a teaching clinic at their clubs. ``No coach recommends her technique, but she makes up for it with guts,'' Hogshead explains. ``When some swimmers pull ahead, you wonder if they can hold the lead. With Janet, you never doubt that she will stay there.''
McAllister says his student is just about perfect technically in what she does under the water's surface, and making cosmetic changes to her unorthodox style would be a mistake. ``If I try to change her stroke to swim pretty, she would swim pretty slow.''
Most swimmers establish a regular breathing pattern, but here, too, Evans is different. If she wants to find some quick acceleration near the end of a race, she will go seven or eight strokes without a breath, a strategy that can be demoralizing to her oxygen-starved rivals.
Like Matt Biondi, Evans was the focus of tremendous pre-Olympics attention. Though she relishes the attention more than he does, she has seen how things can get out of hand. A TV crew, for example, followed her around at one meet this year to shoot her as she brushed her teeth and took a nap. ``She came to me one day in tears and said, `Get them out of here,''' McAllister says.
Her coach calls her strong-willed, a bit temperamental, and all winner. Her intense competitiveness will be put to the test again in the 400- and 800-meter freestyles, where she owns the world's fastest times this year.