POSTED: Friday, April 27, 2012 - 3:00am
UPDATED: Friday, April 27, 2012 - 3:04am
LOS ANGELES (CNN) — She was remembered in her last Olympics 16 years ago -- a near lifetime in an athlete's career -- as a diminutive figure whose size belied her big ambitions and ability to win Olympic gold.
Janet Evans, at 5-foot-6 and 108 pounds, is now 40 years old, and just as Dara Torres made an extraordinary comeback at age 41 to be the oldest swimmer in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Evans is now seeking her own Act 2.
Evans has qualified to participate in late June's trials to make the U.S. Olympic Team, and if she makes the cut, she will go on to compete in the London Games in July.
When she retired following her last Olympics in 1996, she was considered one of the greatest distance freestyle swimmers of all time, winning four gold medals. In all, she competed in three Olympic Games -- Seoul in 1988, Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996. She was known for her "unorthodox windmill" stroke, as she puts it.
Now the Olympian who began swimming at age 2 and competing at age 4 is seeking her fourth Games over a 24-year period.
Can she conquer the biggest adversary of all -- aging?
In a recent interview with CNN at her Huntington Beach, California, training facility about 35 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, Evans said she has been working out five hours a day -- with her husband spending more time taking care of their two small children. But she still drops the kids off at day care with her hair wet and puts dinner on the table every night, she says.
"This time has been so much more fulfilling," she said of her latest Olympics attempt. She has spent the past 16 years as an author, reality TV personality and a motivational speaker.
"Of course, the competitor in me wants to make the Olympic Team, but I also feel like if I don't, it's been an amazing journey," Evans added.
Her return to long hours in the pool has agreed with her. She swims 10 miles daily, plus 45-minute workouts in the weight room.
"It didn't take me as long as I thought to get into a groove," she said. "My family really supported me. My husband said he would be home to take care of the kids, and so I found a routine."
The Laguna Beach, California, resident expects supporters in her quest to make the 2012 Olympic Team, but she also expects her share of skeptics.
"The hardest part of this comeback wasn't physical and wasn't scheduling," Evans said. "It was the critics. And I knew there would be critics out there, and I always had critics in my career."
Those critics will say things like "You know, she's 40. She has children. What is she thinking? She already had this success. Leave it for someone else now. Someone else deserves it. You've had your time," Evans said.
She has a simple answer to those critics.
"Well, if I swim fast enough, who says it's not my time."
Evans says she's proud of the fact "that at 40, I can come back and actually swim with 17-year-olds and keep up with them."
But she admits to having an occasional bad night of sleep because her daughter or son is up at night.
Her trainer, Mark Schubert, said returning to swimming shape wasn't easy for Evans.
"I think for her at 40, the physical is the more difficult. You know she was always in good shape. But it was getting back into swimming shape. Her mental attitude has not changed. Not a bit," he told CNN.
"Predictions in swimming are difficult, but I think Janet is going to amaze everybody with how fast she can swim," Schubert added.
Evans' husband, Bill Wilson, said his admiration for his wife has grown.
"I understand why 20-year-olds do this, because I think when you are not in the pool training, you are resting, right," he said. "And for Janet at 40 with two kids and working and a mom, she doesn't get as much rest as she would probably like, and I respect that even more."
-- CNN's Chuck Conder contributed to this report.