Strokes of inspiration |

Strokes of inspiration

I watched her as she stepped to the table. Her little eyes were filled with admiration as she stood mesmerized by the three-time Olympian seated before her.

She wandered away from the table, looking at the autograph Janet Evans had signed with a look of amazement on her face.

As she came to the edge of the stage, I pulled her aside to chat. Her name was Grace Baker, a 9-year-old swimmer who belongs to the local swimming club – the Penguins.

Grace and her fellow Penguins, many of whom swim for the Nevada Union and Bear River High School teams, along with a couple of hundred members of the community gathered in Nevada Union’s Don Baggett Theatre last Thursday night to hear the story of one of America’s greatest female swimmers.

Evans, a four-time Olympic Gold Medalist and the final female to carry the 1996 Olympic torch that she handed off to Muhammad Ali, shared with her audience the story of her life and, of course, her Olympic experiences. She was able to hold her audience captive with her compelling story, down-to-earth nature and knack for humor.

But yet it was her ability to motivate and inspire that made perhaps the biggest impact on those gathered before her.

As little Grace stepped off the stage, we sat down together on the stairs and talked about the speech. I asked Grace what she thought of it and her eyes danced as she told me she “liked Janet a lot” and that she found her “inspirational.”

But the comment she made that really made me think was when Grace said that after hearing Evans’ speech she wanted to “believe in herself more.” I could tell by just looking at her that Evans had stirred something inside her and had given her something so precious – hope.

When Evans was 12 years old, her parents took her to the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. She told her parents that some day, she too would be an Olympian.

Evans talked to her coaches about what she had to do to make it to that level. Her coaches told her that she was too small and that it was quite the lofty goal.

But Evans choose to believe in herself and what she knew she was capable of achieving. She began to get up at 4:30 every morning to workout and hit the pool again each afternoon. For nearly six hours a day, she chased her dream.

At the age of 15, she broke two world records, but yet two years later, at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, she was not a favorite. Once again, Evans was told she was too small and her stroke too awkward.

The 5-foot-2, 100-pound Evans swam in three events at those 1988 Olympics – she won gold medals in all three.

“I have always been in situations where someone was suppose to be bigger, stronger or more experienced,” Evans said. “But I believed in my mind that I could do it.”

Nevada Union senior Whitney Stephenson admitted it was nice to hear about instances when someone as talented as Evans found herself racked with nerves – a feeling she could identify with as well.

Stephenson’s teammates Drew Harris and Colleen Heauser took special note of when Evans talked about having to get up for early morning sessions and while it may not have been what she wanted to do at the moment, it prepared her for what she wanted to gain in the future.

How many the swimmers walked out of the speech with a new attitude about training or early morning practices or with new goals in mind?

While Evans’ story was centered around swimming – an important sport to so many of those in the audience – her message was of hope and inspiration. A speech filled with subtle, yet refreshing reminders that life can be what you make of it.

“No one can put limits on you mentally,” Evans told me at the end of the evening.

And she’s right – that’s something everyone knows is true deep down, but to be reminded of it is important. So often we listen to the negative voices in our lives that say something is impossible. But perhaps we need to focus on the type of words and encouragement that Evans speaks about time and time again in her speeches.

The world is filled with people who want to dash the dreams of others – let’s work to fill this community with people who will not only encourage the dreams of our youth, but will do all that they can to assist in making them come true.

To believe you can is everything.


Sportswriter Stacy Hicklin’s column usually appears on Wednesday. To contact her, she can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 477-4244.

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