If you watched the 1988 Summer Olympics on TV, you'll remember the heroics of a 17-year-old distance swimmer named Janet Evans, whose lack of stature -- five feet four inches and 99 pounds -- and unorthodox (though surprisingly efficient) windmill stroke made her look like an unlikely champion.
But those seeming flaws were outweighed by seemingly inexhaustible endurance and an intense will to win, and the diminutive Southern Californian with the gigantic smile came home from Seoul with three gold medals. Evans went back to the Olympics in 1992 and won another gold, and then competed again in 1996, when she was honored by being chosen to hand the Olympic torch to Muhammad Ali. It was the pinnacle of an athletic career in which she set three world and six American records and earned a spot in the International Swimming Hall of Fame. After swimming, she went on to success as an author, corporate motivational speaker and reality TV show participant.
To most athletes, that might sound like a satisfying second act. But Evans, a mother of two who turns 41 in August, decided she wants to go for the gold again. This weekend, Evans qualified for the 2012 Olympic trials in two events. In the 800 freestyle, in which she still holds the American record, she finished 11th out of 66 competitors with a time of 8:45:09. She also made the cut to qualify for the trials in the 400-meter freestyle.
Evans tweeted that she's "pleased with my progress, but there is still work that remains to be done." Others in the swimming world weren't so reserved. "Way to go, Mom!" tweeted 1984 men's 100-meter freestyle gold medalist Rowdy Gaines.
If Evans makes the U.S. team for the 2012 games in London, she wouldn't be the first woman swimmer over 40 to make a comeback and medal in the Olympics after a layoff. She'd be following the lead of Dara Torres, who won two silvers at the 2008 Beijing games after an eight-year absence.
Evans was away from the sport for 14 years before resuming training in 2010.
In a Sports Illustrated profile last year, Evans says, "it's always been in the back of my mind to swim again." She explains that her motivation for making a comeback essentially is to show other middle-aged moms that it's possible to pursue a life passion, even after taking time off to raise a family and achieve other goals. But that message is one that resonates with midlifers of both genders.
Evans' comeback is a useful template for midlife athletes in other ways. She may be attempting to regain the elite level of athleticism that she had in her youth, but she's not using the same training methods that she found success with as a teenager, according to a recent ESPN article. Instead of the marathon treadmill-running sessions she once used to augment her swim workouts, for example, Evans now spends her out-of-the-water workout time doing exercises to build her core muscles. Additionally, she and longtime coach Mark Schubert have carefully planned her workouts to give her adequate recovery time -- older athletes generally need more of it -- so that she doesn't incur any injuries.
Read more: Swimmer Dara Torres Shares Her Workout Tips