Amanda Beard with her son, Blaise

Amanda Beard with her son, Blaise (Aqua Sphere photo)

Nearly two decades ago, at age 24, one of America's most decorated distance swimmers decided to retire.

"I felt like I'd done it all," recounts Janet Evans, who competed in her first Olympics at age 16. "I'd won four gold medals over three Olympic Games and I'd passed the torch to Muhammad Ali in Atlanta. I was ready to do what you want to do at age 24 — see the world, get married and be with friends."

The Southern California native married a former college classmate and had two kids, Sydney, now 5, and Jake, 2.

But like a lot of moms who put aside career for parenthood, Evans decided last year to get back to work. Now she spends five hours a day, six days a week training in Huntington Beach, Calif., in her quest to make her fourth Olympic team after a 16-year layoff.

She joins fellow swim moms Dara Torres, 44, and Amanda Beard, 30, along with two swim dads (Jason Lezak and Mark Gangloff), who are balancing family with training in order to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic swim team. The five will vie for a spot at the U.S. swim trials in June. (Open-water swimmer and dad Mark Warkentin has already qualified for the Olympics.)

The swimmers we talked to say that having kids has made them better athletes and happier overall. "They (children) add perspective and take away the pressure," Evans says. "I get to go home to these two great kids and no one cares how I swam that day."

Known for her huge smile, tiny build and unorthodox swim stroke, Evans decided to go back to work at age 39, when her second child turned 1. "I wanted to make time in my life so at the end of the day I could feel like I'd done something for myself," said Evans, who aims to make the team in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle events.

"I couldn't have imagined doing this at age 40, but I'm like any other working mom — energized but exhausted," she says. "Plus I'm staying healthy and I feel very fulfilled."

In Tucson, Ariz., fellow mom/Olympic gold medalist Beard keeps a similar schedule, working out twice a day six days a week, five hours a day. Married and the mother of Blaise Ray, age 2, Beard is a four-time Olympian who won the first of her seven medals at age 14, when she clutched a teddy bear on the podium in Atlanta.

Though she has never officially retired, Beard has taken long breaks from swimming, including a year off after the 2008 Olympics. In late 2009, toting an extra 50 pounds of post-pregnancy weight, Beard got back in the water to get active and healthy.

"When I started training again, I had this feeling I wasn't ready to walk away from the sport," she said. "I still had the passion and love for it."

Like Evans, Beard has had her doubters. "A lot of people wonder how can you train, take care of a child, have a family and be this tired," says Beard. "And I always say, swimming's made me a better mother. I have breaks in the day where I can do things for myself and I come home to spend time with Blaise, refreshed and ready to be a better mom."

Blaise has also made her a better swimmer, she says.

"If I'm going to leave him for three hours, I better have a darn good workout," says Beard, a top breast-stroker who trains with a few dozen other pros and a group of college swimmers. She shares parenting duties with her husband, a freelance photographer.

"I feel lucky to have a pretty flexible schedule for the most part," she says. "We've been able to juggle and balance it between the two of us."

Evans wakes up at 4:30 a.m. for her two-hour morning workout in order to get home and spend time with her kids. "I'm always tired, but no more tired than a mom with a newborn," she says.

"There's a new level of exhaustion I didn't know existed," admits Beard cheerily.

Like any working mom, Beard misses the occasional workday when her child gets sick. But at age 30, "I won't get yelled at by my coach," she says, "and it's not the worst thing in the world to miss a workout here and there."

On the other hand, there are days she leaves the house and Blaise is crying "because he doesn't want mommy to work out."