Beard returns to her fifth Olympic Games

Editor’s Note: Amy Van Dyken sat down with Amanda Beard on April 12 and Beard dished on her new book, "In the Water They Can`t See You Cry," and many other topics — including what happened to the bear that joined her on the medal stand at her first Olympics in 1996.

What surprised everyone the most about the 1996 women’s Olympic swim team was that a virtual unknown 14-year-old would be one of the stars on that team.

That would be Amanda Beard. She gained attention at the Olympic trials, not only for her blazing breaststroke but for something she brought to the starting blocks with her for every race. Her teddy bear, Harold. That bear was almost as big as she was. Harold, a gift from teammate Jason Lezak, always cheered on Amanda from behind her blocks. Lezak would go on to become one of the country’s top male swimmers.

Amanda recalls that her sister jokingly told her, "You should bring Harold with you as you march out to finals."

And like any good 14-year-old, Amanda listened to her sister. Harold even joined Amanda on the medal stand. She won three medals — one gold and two silver — in Atlanta and became the second-youngest Olympic medalist in American swimming history.

When Amanda went on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, so did Harold. But later, during her media tour after the Games, Amanda said she started to think that Harold was cramping her style. As Amanda grew up, she found little need to have Harold by her side. When Amanda and Harold returned home, she put him in a plastic bag and put him in a closet.

Sixteen years later, Harold is still dressed in plastic and in the same place Amanda left him — her closet.

Amanda, though, is aiming for her fifth Olympic Games.