AUSTIN, Texas — Janet Evans' Olympic comeback bid at age 40 just got serious. She also got a reminder of how much work is left to get to the London Games this summer.
In her first elite-level competition since coming out of retirement, the former United States gold medalist and world record holder qualified Friday for the Olympic trials in the 400-meter freestyle at the Austin Grand Prix.
Evans qualified for the trials by winning her preliminary heat with a time of 4 minutes, 17.27 seconds, easily beating the qualifying standard of 4:19.39. Evans knocked about 5 seconds off of her best time coming into the meet at the University of Texas.
That mark was good enough to qualify for the "B'' final at the Grand Prix about seven hours later. But with the Olympic trials qualifying time already behind her and a tougher field of competitors in the pool in Friday night's race, Evans faded to eighth and last place in 4:18.15.
"I was a little tight, a little tired," Evans said. "But this is all good. There's a lot to be happy about today."
The married mother of two was all smiles after both races, especially after shaking off her morning nerves to dominate the first one and book her place in the Olympic trials.
"I was really nervous. I'm usually that spectator in the stands these days and now I'm down here with all the young kids, all the kids I've been watching swim over the years," Evans said. "I kept remembering I've been here, I've done this before. It all kind of comes back."
Evans was 17 when she set the world record in the 400, one of three gold medals she won at the 1988 Seoul Games, and later set world marks in the 800 and 1,500 freestyle. Evans retired after a disappointing effort in the 1996 Atlanta Games, where she failed to qualify for the 400 freestyle and finished sixth in the 800.
The Olympic trials start in June and the London Games start in July. Since announcing her comeback last year, Evans had competed only in Masters' level meets and dominated those races. She couldn't swim in a Grand Prix-level event until she had been in the United States Anti-Doping Agency testing program for a year.
Evans said she needs the Austin Grand Prix to test herself against younger swimmers, some of whom are only half her age.
"We came here for some competition."
She found it in Friday night's race when she never placed better than sixth at any of the turns. Even her 24-year-old pool record of 4:06.43, set in the 1988 Olympic trials, fell Friday night when Allison Schmidt won the "A'' final in 4:05.90.
Evans shrugged off her evening struggles by calling the 400 her "bonus" race. The 800, where she still holds the American record of 8:16.22, is where she hopes to really make her mark this summer.
Evans is scheduled to race the 800 on Sunday and is confident she can qualify for the Olympic trials in that race as well.
"I never had any illusion the 400 was going to be my race," Evans said.
Evans' coach Mark Schubert said qualifying for the Olympic trials showed how well her training has been going.
"She hasn't swum in a race. In a Masters' race, she's winning by like 100 (meters). It's like a workout. This is the first time she's been in a competition. The hardest part is probably behind her now," Schubert said.
After the Austin Grand Prix, Schubert said Evans probably won't race again until April because she wants to stay close to home, her husband and children. Evans gets up at 4 a.m. every day to train so she can be home by the time her children are waking up for school.
"It's a hard schedule," Schubert said. "When she decided to do this, she said, 'We have nothing to prove other than let's see if I can and let's have fun with it.' That's been her whole attitude."
Many swimmers at the meet have marveled at Evans' comeback bid.
"Do kids give you energy?" said Dave Walters, who was on the 2008 Olympic team and finished fifth in the men's 100 meters Friday night. "If they do, I need to start having them."
In other races Friday night, 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps won the men's 100 butterfly in 52.4 seconds. A subpar preliminary in the morning left him in the consolation final of the 100 freestyle, which he won in 49.14.
"I think I was able to come back and race pretty hard. One thing I really haven't done all year is really go in and go for a race and I kind of felt like I did a better job of that," Phelps said. "I'm fairly pleased, but I always want to be faster."
Phelps is scheduled to race four more times: the 400 individual medley Saturday and the 100 breast stroke, the 100 backstroke and the 200 medley Sunday.
"I'm just trying to get in shape," Phelps said.
Phelps' chief rival for the 2012 Olympics, Ryan Lochte, the 2011 USA swimming male athlete of the year, finished seventh in the 100 freestyle consolation final in his only head-to-head matchup with Phelps, and finished fourth in the consolation final of the 400 freestyle.
American record holder Amanda Weir won the women's 100 freestyle in 54.14 seconds, edging 17-year-old Missy Franklin, the 2011 USA Swimming female athlete of the year. Nathan Adrian won the men's 100 freestyle in 48.97.
American record holders Eric Shanteau (2:10.72) and Rebecca Soni (2:22.73) won the men's and women's 200 breast stroke. Dana Volmer won the women's 100 butterfly in 58.02.