FEDERAL WAY, WASH., JULY 21 -- Janet Evans, America's favorite and most invincible swimmer the last several years, lost a race in one of her specialties for the first time in three years today at the Goodwill Games.
If that isn't surprising enough, consider this: It wasn't even close.
Summer Sanders, who, like Evans, grew up in California and raced against her when they were 10- and 11-year-olds, easily defeated a sluggish-looking Evans in the 400-meter individual medley at the King County Aquatics Center. Sanders won the four-stroke event in 4:39.22, almost nine seconds faster than she had ever swum before. Evans came in at 4:39.99, half a body-length behind Sanders.
"I was in shock when I touched the wall," said Sanders, 17, who will be a freshman at Stanford this fall, where Evans will be a sophomore. "I couldn't believe it. . . . In the last 50 meters, when I pushed off the wall, I saw she wasn't there. I freaked out."
In other swimming events, Evans won a second silver medal by anchoring the U.S. women's 4x200-meter freestyle relay team that lost to the East Germans by more than a second. The winning time was 8:05.21; the United States finished in 8:06.42.
The U.S. men, led by anchor-leg swimmer Matt Biondi, won the gold in the 4x100 freestyle relay in 3:17.50. Melvin Stewart of the United States led an American sweep in the 200 butterfly in 1:57.05, a U.S. record; Bart Pippenger and Dave Wharton won the silver and bronze. East Germany's Joerg Hoffman won the men's 800 freestyle in 7:54.73, the fifth-fastest time ever.
In the 400 IM, Evans's time wasn't terrible; her U.S. record (this is the one event in her repertoire in which she doesn't hold the world record) is 4:37.76.
What was bad for Evans, almost 19, was that for a second day in a row, she didn't look good doing what she does best. Friday night, when she easily won the 800-meter freestyle in a lackluster time, U.S. coaches privately shook their heads. Something didn't seem right.
Today, their fears were confirmed.
"We pointed for this meet," said U.S. coach Richard Quick, who also is Evans's coach at Stanford. "Janet wanted to point for this meet. Maybe she's a little tired."
This led some to wonder if Evans's wonderful run atop the swimming world might be coming to an end. She has grown three inches and gained nine pounds since she won three gold medals at the 1988 Olympics. In gymnastics, that's the death knell of a career. In swimming, no one yet knows.
"I think she'll be fine," Quick said. "I think it will help her. She's a great competitor. She'll find a way to make this help her."
Evans held back tears throughout her press conference. She forced a slight smile. She said she was "happy" with her swim, but she didn't sound convinced. She said she loves trying to catch up at the end of a race, but that didn't sound convincing, either.
Sanders was ecstatic, and rightly so. It's almost unheard of to do what she did at the international level of swimming -- lower her time by almost nine seconds. And she did it with a vengeance that left the world's best-known female swimmer gulping in her wake, losing in this event for the first time in four years.
The first stroke in the individual medley is the butterfly. That is Sanders's speciality and she was expected to lead after the first 100 meters. But Sanders didn't just lead, she was on world-record pace. In 1982, Petra Schneider of East Germany set the world record of 4:36.10 in this event and did it largely because of an incredibly quick butterfly leg of 1:02.4. Sanders's butterfly split today was 1:02.47. Evans already was 2.61 seconds behind.
Next came the backstroke, which is where Evans was expected to make up the difference and take over the race. But she didn't. She came back to within one second of Sanders at the halfway point of the race, but she wasn't ahead.
The breaststroke was a disaster for Evans. Perhaps pressing a bit, she fell further off Sanders's pace, dropping to 3.36 seconds behind with only the 100 meters of freestyle left. That is Evans's speciality, with that distinctive flailing motion that looks so bad but works so well. But she was too far behind to catch up. Even she knew it, saying to herself that the race was over.
Evans did cut the difference significantly, pulling up to close to Sanders, who was in the next lane, as they neared the wall. But she ran out of room.
"That last 50 meters, I wasn't looking for her," Sanders said. "If I look at her, I start thinking of her and I get all messed up. She's just a freestyle maniac. I knew she was coming, so gosh, I just put my head down."
Sanders, who lives near Sacramento, knows Evans, from Orange County, very well.
"I've kind of learned I can't worry about her," Sanders said. "She's been good ever since I can remember. I knew she would continue to be good. She's amazing."
But Sanders has been pegged by swimming experts as a rising star. Quick has always said that if someone were to beat Evans in the 400 IM, it would be Sanders. It just didn't happen as fast for Sanders as it did for Evans.
At the U.S. Olympic trials in 1988, Sanders watched two other swimmers pass her in the last moments of the 200 IM to lose a spot on the team going to Seoul. And she finished last in the eight-woman field in the 400 IM, won by Evans.
"In the last 50 today, I had a flashback to the 200 IM at the trials, and I told myself, 'I don't want that to happen again,' " she said.