What could cause an honors student and 8-time All-American swimmer to quit her college swim team at the height of her talents?
For former Olympian Janet Evans, the decision to drop out of Stanford in 1991 was borne from ambition.
Evans earned World Records in the 400, 800 and 1500 meter freestyle by the time she was 15-years-old, and won gold in the 1988 Seoul Olympics in the 400 and 1500 meter freestyles and the 400 meter individual medley, accomplishments that made her a highly prized college recruit.
When she signed a national letter of intent with Stanford in the spring of 1989, the Cardinal women were fresh off their second NCAA championship, and hadn’t finished lower than third in the nation since 1977.
A match made in heaven, right?
For a couple of years, it certainly was. Evans was named 1990 NCAA Swimmer of the Year en route to those eight All-American selections in her first two years as a collegiate athlete. But as a chance to defend her Olympic titles in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics approached, new NCAA rules cramped her style.
Motivated by a concern for academic proficiency, in the spring of 1991, the NCAA reigned-in the amount of time student-athletes could spend in organized practices. Under new rules, athletes were limited to 20 hours per week of in-season training, and just eight hours per week in the off-season, including a mandatory day off. For Evans, this represented a significant impediment: She averaged 30-35 hours in the pool per week year-round, and earned a 4.0 grade point average in the academic quarter before announcing her departure from Stanford.
"If these new rules would have been in effect when I got out of high school, I would never have gone to college," she said to the Associated Press.
Although NCAA officials insisted that the new rules were being misconstrued, Evans’s decision was final.
"I've heard that there were ways to get around it, but I just don't want to deal with that," Evans told the Los Angeles Times. "I really don't know why the NCAA did it. It's very restrictive. I didn't want to spend the rest of my career worrying whether I trained one hour too much."
Ultimately, both Evans and Stanford recovered from her departure unscathed.
Stanford went on to win five straight national championships from 1992-96 after Evans left, en route to an NCAA-leading eight titles.
Meanwhile, Evans competed in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic games, winning a gold in the 800 meter freestyle and a silver in the 400 meter freestyle in Barcelona in 1992. She did not medal in the 1996 Atlanta games. Over the course of her career, Evans amassed a total of seven world records in three events. Her 400 meter freestyle record stood for 19 years; her 1500 meter freestyle time was unbeaten for 20 years; and her 1500 meter freestyle standard wasn’t bested for 21 years.
Evans’s attempt to make a comeback in the 2012 London games as a 40-year-old was met with enthusiasm, but she didn’t make it out of the U.S. Olympic Trials, and re-retired from competition permanently. She completed her bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Southern California in 1994, and is currently Vice Chair and Director of Athlete Relations in Los Angeles’s bid for the 2024 Summer Games.