TUCSON, Ariz. — When Amanda Beard steps onto the starting block at the Olympic trials in roughly 40 days, she’ll do so knowing she has nothing to lose.
Already a four-time Olympic swimmer with seven medals to her name, Beard will attempt to make her fifth Olympic team after coming out of retirement and revealing her deep personal struggles in a tell-all memoir in April.
“Obviously I’m a competitor and an athlete, so I want to be successful and make another Olympic games,” Beard said. “But at the same time, this isn’t my one try or my only shot in my life. I’ve made the Olympics, so if I didn’t make the Olympics and I stopped swimming after this summer, I’ve had a great career. So I can’t be too hard on myself.”
Only Dara Torres has made five Olympic Games for US women’s swimming.
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Given Beard is 30 years old and failed to medal at the 2008 Beijing Games, some might say the odds are stacked against her.
Neither she nor University of Arizona swimming coach Eric Hansen, whom she trains with in the Tucson Ford Dealers Aquatics program, feels that way.
“I feel great, I feel strong and I feel confident,” Beard said. “I’m having fun and just trying to stay healthy and mentally there.”
Beard, Hansen says, has reached a better place mentally than in previous years. She’s better able to handle the mental challenges that come with competing.
“One of the things that’s different for her now is how she digests the pressure,” Hansen said. “It doesn’t become a negative for her. It’s a positive. That’s just part of being a veteran, and it’s a huge advantage she has.”
Part of that comes from already having accomplished so much as a swimmer. Another part of it comes from finally having found stability and happiness after a bumpy road that began when she burst onto the international swimming scene as a 14-year-old at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Beard won a gold and two silver medals that year to become the second youngest medalist in American swimming history, but by the time she returned to the podium in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics, she was battling depression and self-destructive tendencies. To deal with low self-esteem and her perception that she wasn’t pretty or skinny enough, Beard turned to alcohol, drugs, bulimia and cutting.
Beard’s success in the pool continued despite her personal struggles, as she claimed a gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She also had a successful career as a model, posing in 2007 for Playboy magazine. Underneath all the visible success, though, were crippling demons, and Beard finally hit a breaking point.
After getting help at the urging of Sacha Brown, who’s now her husband, Beard overcame her struggles to transform her life and came out of retirement in 2010. She’s now happily married with a 2-year-old son and back in the pool for another shot at Olympic glory. She chronicled her journey recently in her memoir “In the Water They Can’t See You Cry.”
“Right before the book came out, about a week before, I got extremely nervous just because it has such personal details about my life,” Beard said. “You never know how someone’s going to respond to it.”
The reaction and support Beard received while doing radio and TV appearances and book signings was “way better” than she expected.
Through various notes, emails and personal encounters, she feels the book touched others with similar stories, accomplishing exactly what she wanted it to.
“I could put (out) a book about all the great things I’ve done and some of the cool stuff in my life, but that’s not the reality of my life and it wouldn’t be honest,” Beard said. “Especially to a lot of my younger fans and younger female athletes. They’re high-school aged or young mothers, and I want them to know they’re not alone in some of the journeys they’re experiencing.”
Now back to training full time for the Olympic trials, which take place in Omaha, Neb., from June 25 to July 2, Beard feels she’s in good shape competitively. The positive now, she says, is that she has six weeks to fine-tune her efforts in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. She trains at Hillenbrand Aquatic Center on the UA campus, where she competed collegiately for two years.
If there are skeptics of Beard’s ability to make it to London, she hasn’t heard much from them. She’s learned by now how to mostly tune out the naysayers.
“The things that I do hear are just motivation to wake me up early in the mornings and jump in the pool,” Beard said. “Through your life you are just going to hear tons of negative stuff. No matter how hard you try to block it out, some of it gets to you and you hear some of it.
“Some days it’s harder to put on those blinders and push through, and some days you just say ‘Screw you guys’ and dive in, and it makes you a better athlete.”
If nothing else, having reached four Olympics gives Beard a distinct advantage over her competition for one of the top two spots at the trials. Hansen says her racing ability, coupled with her toughness, gives her “a real shot” at going to London. The competition to make the US team is always fierce, but Beard had the second-fastest time among American women in the 200 in 2011.
“She’s in a good place mentally,” Hansen said. “She realizes it’s going to be tight. We’ve discussed what it’s going to take and how it’s going to have to go down.”
Despite her past Olympic success, Beard isn’t getting ahead of herself. She first has to excel in Omaha, which is why she keeps resisting her husband’s questions about booking flights and hotels in London.
While Beard is happy with all she’s achieved already, she’s not necessarily satisfied. She won’t lament missing the London Games, but she does want at least one more Olympic experience.
“Every Olympics is so different that it’s hard to be like ‘I’ve been to one, so it’s cool,’ ” Beard said. “They’re so unique and amazing, and it’s such a great honor. I feel so blessed to have been a part of it, and I would love to be part of it again.”