OMAHA, Neb. — She's still the giggler who charmed as the sweetheart of the 1988 Seoul Games. But now, what has the 40-year-old Janet Evans laughing is her age -- or rather, that of her competition.
"There was a 16-year-old," the three-time gold medalist said, her eyes widening at the youth of a swimmer two lanes over from her. She's "closer in age to Syd," she said, referring to her 5-year-old daughter.
Evans, attempting an unlikely comeback after about 15 years away from competition, is not the only swimmer watching time pass before her eyes at the qualifying trials for the team that will go to the London Games.
Every four years, of course, a different U.S. team goes to the Olympics. But this year, a distinct changing of the guards could be underway.
For one thing, some veterans are facing strong challenges for the events they've dominated for several Olympic cycles. Natalie Coughlin, for example, has won 11 medals over the past two Games, but barely made it into Wednesday night's finals for her signature event, the 100-meter backstroke. She is seeded seventh in a field topped by the 17-year-old phenom, Missy Franklin.
Franklin was nothing if not gracious about the prospect of surpassing the much decorated Coughlin, saying Tuesday night it was going to be "awesome" racing in the lane next to her.
"I think it's impossible to take Natalie's spot," Franklin said, despite having a pretty good chance of doing just that. "I mean, she's the best women's swimmer the sport has ever seen and probably ever will, so she's done her job, and no one can really fill her spot."
The preliminary race Evans entered Tuesday, the 400-meter freestyle, was similarly one in which a transition was underway. Evans was not expected near the top, and she indeed ended on the other end -- 80th place. But another swimmer, Katie Hoff, the American record holder in the event, seemed a likely contender but instead finished 20th in the preliminaries, too low to qualify for the finals that night. Allison Schmitt, now training at NBAC as Hoff once did, went on to win the final.
Hoff, her coach Paul Yetter said, was suffering from some sort of stomach bug. It was the latest setback for the swimmer, who headed to the last Olympics after dominating the trials. She instead won a silver and two bronze, accomplishments that her she and her supporters, unfairly or not, find themselves having to defend.
She has become something of a cautionary tale, cited when the subject of Franklin's fast rise comes up, of someone who was shackled with too great expectations too soon, of how easy it can be for someone's moment to pass.
But Yetter, Hoff's coach early on at NBAC and now based in Naples, Fla., said Hoff has much to be proud of, and much more swimming left in her. "She's 23 years old and has won over 20 international medals," he said. "She's a great swimmer, and I can see her going faster in the future."
Which could begin Wednesday morning, when Hoff is entered a preliminary heat for the 200-meter freestyle race. In the lane next to Franklin.