Janet Evans swims in her women’s 400m freestyle heat during the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska, June 26, 2012. (REUTERS/Jeff Haynes)

By Julian Linden

OMAHA, Nebraska, June 26 (Reuters) – There was a touch of nostalgia at the U.S. Olympic trials on Tuesday when Janet Evans, once the darling of American swimming, made her comeback.

The crowd roared in anticipation when the 40-year-old mother stepped on the blocks for the heat of the women’s 400 metres freestyle, an event she won at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and for which she held the world record for almost two decades.

Looking as fit and lean as ever, it was almost like old times when the gun went off and the diminutive Evans plunged into the water and set off down the pool with her distinctive windmill stroke.

But her new times are not like her old and she was unable to keep up with her younger opponents, most of whom were less than half her age.

“They were closer to my kid’s age than my age,” she said.

Evans finished seventh in her heat and 80th overall from 113 swimmers, stopping the clock in a time of four minutes 21.49 seconds, almost 18 seconds outside her best.

“I wish I’d gone faster,” Evans said. “It’s not what I wanted but it is what it is. I couldn’t get going but it was still a lot of fun.”

Evans was once the undisputed queen of middle distance swimming.

Even though she was physically smaller than most of her opponents, Evans won three gold medals as a 17-year-old at Seoul, and set world records in the 400 and 800 that lasted into the new millennium, a virtual eternity in a sport where records tumble at regular intervals.

She won a fourth gold medal, in the 800, at Barcelona then retired after failing to get on the podium in Atlanta, where she handed the torch to Muhammad Ali at the opening ceremony.

If she had any regrets about her time in Tuesday’s 400, she had none about deciding to make a one-off comeback, even though she knew she had no real hope of making the American team for London.

“I was actually more nervous than ever,” she said.

“I was talking to my husband about it. It is such a different situation because when I swam at trials and meets before, I knew I would at least be in the finals, or maybe win or get second.

“It was a very different mental game for me, just swimming to swim. I am so used to swimming for a purpose.

“Just to be here to enjoy it was very different emotionally for me. I’m not saying it was better or worse. It was just a different mindset.”