Amanda Beard: The Highs and Lows of a U.S. Olympic Swimming Star

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2012

Amanda Beard: The Highs and Lows of a U.S. Olympic Swimming Star

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    On the surface, she had it all. Her life was a conflation of every American child's dreams––both male and female. On the one hand, she was a famous athlete with an Olympic Gold Medal. And on the other, she was an international sex symbol who dated dreamy celebrities and posed in magazines.

    But there was a dark side to Amanda Beard's triumphs. A side so dark, she worked actively to hide it from the world that seemed to adore her so much.

    Now, as she gears up for a questionable attempt to qualify for her fifth Olympic games, Amanda Beard hopes to put the past behind her, and focus on the pool––a place she has often referred to as her 'sanctuary.'

    Here are the four biggest highs and the three biggest lows in the career of a true American icon.

High: Winning Two Olympic Silver Medals at the Age of 14

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    Beard's couldn't have had a more innocuous start to her career. She became America's darling at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where the precocious 14-year-old took home two individual silver medals (on top of a gold medal in the relay).

    And, as if the lanky, 92 pound child wasn't already precious enough, she walked up to the medal stand with her teddy bear, Harold, in her hands. In that moment she was forever ingrained not only in American hearts, but also in eternal Olympic lore.

    But even though it was her juvenile innocence that helped make her a household name, she would soon round the corner into adulthood, and discover a completely different side of herself.

Low: The Reaction to Her Choice to Pose in FHM and Playboy

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    Far be it from me to tell a woman–particularly a beautiful woman, as Beard blossomed into–what to do with her body. As far as I'm concerned, she was well within her rights to pose suggestively in FHM magazine, and then nude in Playboy.

    This is a lowlight not because of her actions, but rather because of how the swimming community at-large responded to it.

    Chuck Wielgus, the executive director of USA Swimming told the Colorado Springs Gazette that the organization didn't "...feel that that the appearance by Ms. Beard in the July issue of Playboy magazine is an appropriate portrayal of our sport....We strive ... to promote the values of hard work, dedication and teamwork that swimming instills in its young athletes and their families."

    Beard always seemed a little uncomfortable with the reputation she got as an American sweetheart after the '96 Olympics, telling Inked Magazine that "I just want to be who I am, and I'm not just your typical all-American swimmer-type of girl."

    She might not have wanted to be an "All-American swimmer type," but I doubt she wanted to make enemies out of her swim team, and feminists across the country––a demographic that comprised a large portion of her fan-base.

    On top of that, the magazine shoots had a drastic effect on her body image. She told Marie Claire that "...after photo shoots, it's mind-boggling to see the inches they take off, the wrinkles, the little complexion errors. It makes you think, Oh, my gosh, this is what I should look like. So that started to stress me out..."

    These insecurities would soon manifest themselves in a very dangerous way. 

High: Becoming the 200-Meter World Champion in 2003

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    Beard struggled to adjust to her growing frame during her teenage years, but her diligence allowed her to adjust and continue her dominance in the water.

    After regressing to a mere bronze medal during the 2000 Olympics, Beard had her most successful run in the years between her second and third Games.

    She started by attending Arizona State and winning the National Championship. But that accomplishment was dwarfed in 2003, when she won gold at the 2003 World Championships.

    Her 200-meter breaststroke time shattered the U.S. record, and tied her for the world record. She had all the momentum, as well all the popularity that any girl could want, as she headed toward the 2004 Olympics.

Low: Struggling with Self-Mutilation and Bulimia

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    On the surface, Amanda Beard appeared to have everything a girl could want. She was rich and famous. She was dating sexy NASCAR driver Carl Edwards. She had endorsement deals. What more could she want?

    But any fan of swimming knows that what you see on the surface is only the tip of the iceberg; it's what's going on under the surface that's really important.

    And under the surface, Beard was hurting.

    In her new memoir, In The Water They Can't See You Cry, Beard reveals her life-long struggle with depression––a struggle that had manifested itself as self-mutilation since her college years.

    In one particularly chilling excerpt for her book, she details one instance when she went overboard in an attempt to calm herself with cutting:

    I grabbed the razor, a two-inch handle in a cheery shade of pink with an extremely thin and sharp blade at its tip. I surrendered to the object so tiny in my palm. With the razor in my right hand, I revealed the underside of my other arm, cradling it close to my body. The energy ran too fast to contemplate the moment before the half-inch silver blade hit my arm. It flashed briefly in the sunlight before slicing into the meaty part between the wrist and the elbow. One. Two. Three. I made the small lines as I had done so many times before. I didn't have to press hard, only run the razor across my skin as lightly as a blade of grass moving across the leg of a child running through a field.

    I knew immediately. Something was wrong. The calm that usually washed over me as soon as I made my light little cuts with their delicate beads of blood was replaced by a new fear. In the moment when thinking was not possible and the energy took over, I must have applied too much pressure, because one of the cuts gushed blood. This was not in control.

    The title of her book is a reference to how she used swimming as a release to her problems, as well as how even if she went underwater and cried in her goggles, nobody would have noticed.

    She was hiding in plain sight. And nobody had any idea.

High: Winning Gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics

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    Beard said that she was able to strategically hide the marks of her self-mutilation by keeping the cuts as small as possible. As she quipped in an interview with Marie Claire, "Cutters are really good at hiding things." Thus, nobody realized the emotional trauma she was dealing with when she arrived in Athens.

    In the wake of her success at the 2003 World Championships, and with her newfound status as a sex symbol, Beard entered the 2004 games with the eyes, and hopes, of a nation focused directly on her.

    And she didn't disappoint.

    Beard won her first ever individual gold in Athens, breaking the world record (which she had previously tied) in the 200-meter breaststroke. She called winning the gold a "huge relief," and was ready to get on with the rest of her life.

Low: Failing to Make the Semifinals at the 2008 Olympics

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    Few expected Beard to even attempt to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but she showed up to trials, and even more surprisingly made the team. 

    In fact, she was voted team captain.

    The captain spot, however, wasn't something that swimming's wild-child was particularly comfortable with. She told Inked that "When you are captain, you kind of have to be the bitch. You have to make sure everyone's keeping in line. So it's kind of tough."

    And in Beijing, for one of the first times in her career, Beard shrunk in the spotlight.

    She posted times that were two seconds slower than what she posted in the Olympic Trials, and was eliminated before the semifinal round. Many people considered this to be the unceremonious end of her relevance in the competitive swimming community.

High: Overcoming Her Personal Problems

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    Only time will tell if Amanda Beard's Olympic career will continue (the Olympic Trials start in late June and carry over into early July), but Beard's biggest achievement in life thus far may have come out of the water.

    Through deep personal exploration and a lot of time spent in therapy, Beard said she has overcome the destructive habits that plagued her in her prime.

    As she told Marie Claire, "It took a good amount of therapy to make me realize that pushing problems under the rug doesn't work. Therapy helped me learn to value myself more, to realize that I have flaws, but if I can just be happy and healthy and enjoy the short time that I have on this earth, that's what we're supposed to do....I feel like I have finally come to a point where I'm comfortable with who I am."

    She sounds more like the innocent little tyke who made the nation give a collective "Awww" when she brought her teddy to the podium in 1996. And if she's happy, then regardless of how she does this summer, we should be happy as well.