Janet Evans just keeps on winning.
The three-time Olympian in swimming, winner of four gold medals, 45 U.S. National titles, 21 international titles - and the list continues - may have retired from the sport, but she hasn't slowed down a bit. Nowadays, instead of training 12 hours a day in the pool, she dedicates the majority of her time to motivating others to reach their potential.But the regimen is no less tiring. Looking a little weary from her red-eye flight into Salt Lake City, the athlete voted "Most Inspirational" by fans at the Atlanta Olympics was up early, preparing to appear as the keynote speaker at the National Academic League convention Friday evening.
The NAL's philosophy is right up Evans' alley.
The brainchild of Salt Lake residents Terrel Bell and Donna Elmquist, the NAL's mission is to integrate the competitiveness of athletics into an academic format.
Elmquist, president of Terrel Bell & Associates and NAL national commissioner, said the idea to form a competitive academic league came while she and Bell were on an airplane.
"We were on a plane one day, and a game came on. And we thought to ourselves, what if we could get the same enthusiasm for academic competitions as we get for physical competitions? We were concerned at the lack of motivation and recognition for our good students."
From there, a nationally acclaimed program for middle and junior high school students developed.
Elmquist presented the idea to Granite School District administrators, where the pilot program was born. Since then, it has spread to 19 states and 300 schools, involving about 8,000 middle and junior high school students. Granite alone has 13 teams.
"Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we used the athletic sports program as a model for our academic program."
Indeed, the NAL's academic program works much like other sports programs. Student teams compete against other schools in math, science, social studies and English. There are coaches, officials, and cheerleaders, a scoring system (including fouls) and competitive season, home and away games. Further, each season ends with a regional and national championship tournament, held through televideo conferencing.
Evans said the NAL has come upon a great idea, that there is a very real connection between sports and academics.
"When people ask me if I was a good student, I say `yeah, I got great grades, I was on the dean's list.' And, I really think that athletics was the key. I was a good student because of athletics.
"Athletics made me disciplined, and athletics made me able to time-manage. Athletics made me competitive, but also a team player. And, I think that's what academics in school is all about. But then, I think that the lessons of sports can relay into all aspects of life: Do your best and be fair. Be a good winner and a good loser. And work hard."
Evans knows what she's talking about. Education has always been a top priority for the Evans family: Mom is a trigonometry teacher, dad is a veterinarian, brothers are a doctor and a lawyer. And Janet?
As a high school senior, Evans found herself in the enviable position of being an Olympic gold medalist, the darling of the Seoul games. She was offered lucrative endorsement deals and promotional engagements. Tempting stuff for someone so young. But, not for Evans.
"My goal had always been to get a college scholarship," she said. "But there's this rule in college swimming that you can't take any money from endorsements and still receive a scholarship. So, I gave up the endorsements, just like that. Getting the college degree was always my goal."
She went on to graduate from the University of Southern California in 1994, with a degree in communication.
Evans' advice to students is simple: "Your education is what you make of it. Have confidence in yourself regardless of what happens. If you feel you've failed, keep trying. And always, always believe in yourself."
For the NAL, Evans was a logical choice to be the voice for their campaign, and the future they're looking forward to in education.
"Our dream is to build a new tradition in American education: a new sport to honor students," Elmquist said. "We want students to get as much recognition for being an NAL star as they would for being an athletics star. And it's happening."
Elmquist said the NAL is growing, thanks to its innovative approach, and support from people like Janet Evans.
"Janet embodies a lot of the same lessons our NAL students are learning: sticking to it, losing gracefully and winning gracefully."
Evans' appearance marks the midpoint of the NAL convention, continuing at the University Park Hotel through Saturday.