Remembering Janet Evans’ 400 Freestyle World Record 32-Years Later

This fall will mark 32 years since the 1988 Seoul Olympics and Janet Evans re-breaking her own 400 freestyle world record. At those games, Evans finished with three gold medals by winning the 400 and 800 freestyle, plus the 400 IM. With this, she became the second American woman to sweep the distance events at the Olympic Games, after Debbie Meyer in 1968. Since then, only Brooke Bennett and Katie Ledecky have matched that feat.

Going into the race, it was clear that it would be a battle between two women: Evans and Heike Friedrich of East Germany. Friedrich was the reigning world champion from 1986 and the winner of the 200 freestyle earlier in the Games. However, Evans had set the world record at 4:05.45 at the U.S. Open in 1987. 

In prelims, Evans qualified first with a 4:10.21. It wasn’t Friedrich who qualified second through, instead it was her teammate Anke Möhring with a 4:10.64. Friedrich qualified 5th with a 4:11.30. 

In finals, Evans opened up with the lead, splitting 59.99 on the opening 100. However, Friedrich, known for her closing speed, began to inch up on Evans through the 200 mark. The two were almost even at the 300 mark, with Evans only leading by .16 seconds. Then, Evans hit a second gear, splitting an eye-popping 1:00.45 over the final 100 meters. She hit the wall in a time of 4:03.85, which took almost 2 seconds off of the previous world record. Friedrich had to settle for silver, while her countrymate Möhring won the bronze. 

Evans’ swim remains one of the fastest 400 freestyles in history, even 22 years later. This is in spite of the fact that she was only 5’5” at the time of the swim, much shorter than her competitors. However, it was her unique stroke that set her apart from the other swimmers in the pool. Unlike most swimmers, Evans swam with a “windmill” stroke, maintaining a higher stroke rate and shorter distance per stroke. She also had an unusual breathing pattern for a distance swimmer, opting for breathing every 7 or 8 strokes over her final 200 meters or so. According to her coach at the time, Bud McAllister, Evans’ unique stroke was based off of her inability to “swim pretty” without slowing down. 

Evans’ 400 freestyle world record wouldn’t fall until 2006, while her American record didn’t fall until Katie Hoff broke it during the super suit era. Even with the advancements made during that time, Evans’ record would’ve scored 4th at the London Olympics. However, what was more impressive was the fact that she managed to negatively split the race. In her opening 200, Evans split a 2:02.14, and then closed in a 2:01.71. Nowadays, most athletes not named Katie Ledecky don’t even get close to splitting that on the back half of a 400 freestyle, and they certainly come nowhere near negative splitting the race, even in modern swimsuits. 

In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 years ago

Was Evans’ 800 Free the longest standing WR or was it Mary T’s 200 Fly WR? I would enjoy a A SS article discussing the greatest WE in history with a comparison of the factors (tech suits, lanelines, etc) involved in the ranking. I think it would get a lot of comments and entertain us all during this Covid-19 swimming-free period!

Reply to  Danjohnrob
4 years ago

Evans’ 800 free lasted from August 1989 to August 2008, Mary Ts 200 fly record (which would have won 2019 Worlds btw) was held from August 1981 to May of 2000. Janet’s lasted a little longer.

BUT, Mary T was the only one who held the 200 fly world record between July 1979 and May 2000. The 2:05.96 from 1981 which stood for nearly two decades was the 5th time she had broken it.

I agree, this would be a really interesting article to see.

4 years ago

at the 4:26 mark in the video that might be the coolest looking freestyle i’ve ever seen (evans’ of course)
also, it’s clear what made her so good: it’s like she has double jointed shoulders

4 years ago

Think Julie McDonald was the only swimmer to beat Janet at her peak, in the 800m at Pan Pacs in 87

4 years ago

Still remember seeing Janet swim in 1989 at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach at the Q meet that I was swimming in. She was trying to break the Womans American Record in the 500 yard free, she didn’t but it was still incredible watching her. It looked like she literally sprinted the entire 500 yard free. What really impressed me is that after that race she warmed down and then did the lap counter for one of her team-mates. No pretensions that she was too good for that. Later that meet she set the 1650 American Record.

4 years ago

a few parallels between this and phelps’ 400 IM WR…4:05 mid to 4:03.8…had an adversary (lochte), but blitzed then the last 100…and the record has stood quite some time, and all since have been within striking distance at the 300, but no chance with the incredible last 100. then of course both in an olympic final and both olympic legends

4 years ago

greatest female swimmer of all times. From the outside / above water she looks like someone just learning to swim. Her speed and efficiency is amazing

Reply to  Sam
4 years ago

yea i dont know about that one boss…especially not when someone who swam the exact same races as her won by bigger margins, slaughtered WRs (super suit boosted world recrods) even more than she did, and then added the 200 and became the olympic/world champion…..while also being capable of dropping a 52 split in the 100.

sorry but everything Evans did, Ledecky did better, and then did more

Reply to  pvdh
4 years ago

I tend to agree, great swimmer Janet Evans, but Kate Ledecky just blows everyone away. Ledecky is the greatest.

Reply to  pvdh
4 years ago

When Janet Evans was done breaking world records, all three of them lasted between 18-20 years. The only loss she had in major competition in the 400-800-1500 free between 1988 and 1993 was when a former East German swimmer narrowly out-touched her in the 400 free in Barcelona. Coaches say that if she’d have had the benefit of today’s suits, she would have gone 8:08 in the 800, which would have lasted from 1989 to 2015. Plus she won the 400 IM at the 1988 Olympics, and she would have broken the world record in that race if it hadn’t been held by a doped-up East German since 1982. She has more US National titles than anyone not named Phelps… Read more »

Reply to  Aquajosh
4 years ago

Ledecky has only lost once in 400-800-1500 since London 2012. No way Evans would have gone 8:08 in today’s suits. These tech-suit conversions are way out of line. Evans went under 8:20 only twice in her entire career. Taking GDR out of the rankings, she still never held the top 10 times in the event at any given time.

Reauro Yurboet
Reply to  pvdh
1 year ago

While both swimmers were incredibly dominant in their respective eras, there are a few factors to consider when comparing their accomplishments. First, the sport of swimming has evolved significantly since Evans’ time, with advances in training, technology, and nutrition allowing swimmers to swim faster than ever before. As a result, Ledecky’s times are generally faster than Evans’ were, and her world records have been broken more frequently. Second, Ledecky has been able to compete in the 1500-meter freestyle at the Olympics, which was not an event for women during Evans’ career. This has given Ledecky the opportunity to win more Olympic medals and set more world records than Evans did.

4 years ago

My favorite race, ever.
And I’ll always remember when they said because of her training, she was eating about 7,000 calories a day to keep her body weight up. At 100 pounds! 7,000 calories a day!
Her underwater technique was off the charts.
It was so remarkable to see her vs. the giant, substance-enhanced DDR swimmers, and Janet wiped the floor with them.
A legend she is.

4 years ago

As a footnote, 1988 was the last time the U.S. won the gold medal in the women’s 400m individual medley at the Summer Olympics. Oh the irony, Janet Evans was considered the greatest long distance freestyler of all time.

About Nicole Miller

Nicole Miller

Nicole has been with SwimSwam since April 2020, as both a reporter and social media contributor. Prior to joining the SwimSwam platform, Nicole also managed a successful Instagram platform, amassing over 20,000 followers. Currently, Nicole is pursuing her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. After competing for the swim …

Read More »