She tried her best to look perky, but Janet Evans’ eyes were brimming with tears after she failed to qualify for Monday night’s 400-meter freestyle final.
There were eight spaces. She finished ninth in the preliminary heats.
Evans, the world’s fourth-ranked swimmer in the event, miscalculated, figuring a 4:13 would easily get her in.
She swam 4:13.60, a fifth of a second too slow.
As if that weren’t enough to make Evans cry, one of the women who beat her out was a controversial late entry who has been the subject of drug rumors all week. That woman, Michelle Smith of Ireland, went on to win the the 400-meter freestyle finals Monday night. Smith, who won the 400-meter individual medley Saturday night, has never tested positive for steroids, but her times have dropped dramatically in the past few months, causing other swimmers to wonder whether she is clean.
Smith was ranked 41st in the world in the 400 individual medley coming into the Olympics, and her winning time of 4:39.18 was 13 seconds faster than her previous personal best.
Smith, 26, was added to the 400 freestyle field this week after the Irish federation petitioned the International Olympic Committee. Smith swam the fastest time in the world this year (4:08) on July 7, two days after the Olympic roster was submitted. The IOC made an exception to the deadline and gave Smith a wild-card entry because the Irish federation claimed it had been misinformed by the Atlanta Olympic organizers.
The United States, Germany, and the Netherlands filed a protest, but it was denied.
“I think it’s unfair,” Evans said. “She didn’t really play by the rules. Every single swimmer from every single country entered when they were supposed to. In life you’re supposed to play by the rules, but I guess life isn’t fair.”
Asked to comment on Smith’s 18-second improvement in the past year, Evans was blunt.
“Yes, it is questionable,” she said. “It is suspicious. It is the topic of conversation on the pool deck, that’s for sure. Perhaps she’s just having the meet of her life. It’s possible. You can change your training method and get great results, but this kind of drop at her age is suspicious.”
Smith credits her recent success to her husband, Eric DeBruin, a Dutch discus thrower.
“My husband’s background in track and field has been a big help,” said Smith, who trains in the Netherlands. “We’ve tried to translate some of the principles of athletics into a swimming program. I’ve done some weight training, so I’m a lot stronger than I was three or four years ago. I’m also a lot lighter and leaner.”
Other swimmers point out that DeBruin is serving a four-year suspension from track and field after testing positive for excessive levels of testosterone.
For Evans, the Olympics aren’t over yet.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist still has the 800 freestyle Wednesday, and she said her disappointment Monday will motivate her to the medal podium.
“All I have to do is get my confidence back and I’ll be OK,” she said.