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Janet Evans: 40, Fabulous and Fearless

Summer temps are heating up, and so is Olympic fever. We’ll be rooting for all the U.S. athletes competing in the games, but we saved some extra cheers for long-distance swimming dynamo Janet Evans. The 5-foot-6-inch phenomenon shot to stardom at the 1988 Olympics when she was only 16, taking home gold medals in the 400m and 800m freestyle and the 400m individual medley. Evans continued to dominate the sport until she called it quits after the ’96 Olympics at the age of 25.

Sixteen years later, Evans came out of retirement with the goal of swimming in the 2012 Olympics. And while she fell short of the cutoff during trials, the 40-year-old mom isn't sorry she took on the challenge. After her chat with Prevention, all we can say is, Evans makes it easy to believe that age is nothing more than a few extra candles on that birthday cake.

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The last time you trained for the Olympics you were in your mid-20s. Did you approach training any differently now that you’re 40?

It is a little bit different. I get a little more tired. For me, the training itself was actually very similar to how I trained when I was 20. Swimming is just basically getting in the pool, doing the laps. Getting it done. The difference I have noticed now that I’m 40 is that I need to take better care of myself outside of the pool. You know, I think that when you’re in your teens and 20s, you really take advantage of your health and take it for granted. So, for me, it’s been more of a question of eating better, taking care of my health, taking care of my heart.

How do you stay motivated to push yourself when you’re low on energy?

You know, it’s just kind of what you do.

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You just have to get in that zone?

Yeah, I think you are in that zone. You just kind of get up and you do it, and you are tired. But I think that one of the reasons I decided to come back was that after having two children [Sydney, 6, and Jake, 3] I would be up in the middle of the night with them, thinking that nothing could ever be harder than this. I try to get my 8 hours of sleep, which I think is very important. And like I said, I eat better and try to take better care of myself.

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So what’s a typical day look like in terms of diet for you?

I eat a banana prior to my morning workout. I think protein is very important when you are training as hard, as you’re breaking your muscles down. So I usually have a protein shake or some eggs or something that gives me a little protein after my workout. I also have a scoop of my Metamucil to keep my cholesterol down–I have a history of heart disease in my family. Then, for lunch, I usually have something that’s going to sit well in my stomach because I have to go back to training. So I usually have a turkey sandwich or something of that nature. And dinner, I come home and make something healthy for my kids and husband. Once again, kind of protein-based, but basically trying to get enough fuel to get back up and do it all again the next day.

Are you teaching your kids how to combat heart disease?

I am. That’s been one of the things that this comeback has really helped with— helping us all be more healthy. If I eat healthy, everyone eats healthy because I make the meals. So, in that respect, it’s been a super-positive experience for all of us.

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Do you have any favorite indulgences?

I think my weakness is ice cream, for sure.

In terms of your training right now, how many days of the week do exercise? How many minutes are you in a pool each day?

Well, I swim 4 hours a day and I do a dry-land workout for an hour a day—it’s about 5 hours a day.

What type of cross-training are you doing for your dry-land workouts?

It’s a lot of Pilates-based activities, mostly focusing on my core. You know, swimmers really use core muscles more than you think because that’s what keeps us balanced and afloat in the water.

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When you are doing laps for exercise versus specific training for the Olympics, which strokes do you normally do?

I am a freestyler. I mostly do freestyle, but I’ll also mix it up and do all four of the individual medley strokes [freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly] because even though I don’t swim those in a race, those are the strokes that keep me strong in the water. All four strokes really use all of your different muscle groups.

How do you juggle being an athlete with being a mom?

You know, I think I’m a working mom. I think any working mom would tell you it’s a question of balance and finding your groove. For me, it’s been coming home and kind of shedding the athlete side and getting into the mom side. And when I’m at the pool, being an athlete and focusing on that.

How do you coordinate your training schedule with your kids’ schedules?

Well, I swim every morning at 5:30 a.m., right about the time they are rolling out of bed. So that really helps. Then I swim a lot in the afternoon. So I’m home a lot during the day with them. They just got out of school. I was home to take my little girl to preschool, but she’s done now. For me it was finding a way to work my swimming schedule around what works for them, too. They are obviously my priority.

In your opinion, what makes swimming such a great exercise for women in their 40s and older?

It’s such good exercise. It’s mostly good because it’s non-impact. So you’re not really hurting your body. You’re not pounding the pavement. You’re not impacting your muscles and your joints. Swimming stretches you out and keeps your muscles long and lean. Like I said, doing all four strokes works every muscle group in your body. It works your core. It’s one of the best exercises that you can do.

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What tips would you offer a reader who wanted to start swimming for weight loss?

I think the most important thing is to remember to breathe. I think a lot of people get in the pool and forget they have to breathe. They need to breathe, relax. I say, just get in the pool and try to do about 10 laps, and then every time you go back, try to do a couple more.

Do you have a positive body image now that you’re over 40?

I think that I feel good. I feel strong. I think I can keep up.

If you hadn’t become an Olympian, what would you be doing now?

I don’t know. I think I would definitely be a mom. Helping kids out in the water, making sure they’re safe in the pool. I don’t know. I’ve always been a swimmer. It’s all I really know.

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