OMAHA, Neb. -- In profile, Amanda Beard looks the same doing the breaststroke after all these years, her upper body rising out of the water in a praying mantis pose, then lowering and digging as if there were treasure buried in front of her.
Beard has unearthed quite a bit of precious metal with that technique since 1996, when she charmed a nation riveted to a home Olympics, claiming a pair of silver medals in her individual events and a gold in the medley relay at age 14 in Atlanta. She won bronze in the 200-meter breaststroke in Sydney four years later and reaped gold in the event at the 2004 Athens Games. Although she couldn't extend her podium streak in 2008, Beard cemented her place in the sport through sheer longevity.
We watched her grow from a toothy teen into a stunningly beautiful woman in that time-lapse photography peculiar to an event held every four years. That gave us the impression we knew something about her. Naturally, we didn't.
Beard left swimming, married and had a baby boy, but never formally retired. When she decided to come back, she set some goals in the pool, and one new and somewhat surprising one on dry land. By the time I saw her at the Santa Clara Grand Prix in June 2011, word was out that she was working on a memoir, and it wasn't going to match up entirely with the pretty slideshow of the previous 15 years.
I asked her why, after all that time under the microscope, she would choose to turn it on herself.
"I do a lot of clinics for younger girls, and I'm around female athletes all the time," Beard told me last year. "I really just feel like there's so much going on with them. Whether they're just a high school kid trying to get good grades and live their life, or if they're trying to be a top athlete, they look at us as role models. They see us diving in, doing our thing; we train, we're kind of robotic, almost.
"I just wanted to strip that away and be like, that whole robotic perfection, all of that stuff does not exist to anybody. We all have that dark side."
She kept her word in the book released this spring, "In The Water, They Can't See You Cry." I know she'd rather have you buy it than have me reveal its contents here, but suffice to say that Beard digs deeper into herself than she ever did in the water, detailing struggles with eating disorders, substance abuse and dysfunctional relationships. It puts her accomplishments into a different picture frame, and for that she should be commended.
"People feel embarrassed to talk about it, can't talk about it or think that to get help is shameful," she said last year. "You can still be very successful even though you're going through a lot of your own personal issues. It's good to humanize people that you put on a pedestal. Not saying that I'm on a pedestal, but you see people on magazines and TV and think they have everything perfect."
Beard noted that swimming wasn't a bad job for someone about to turn 30. "Good hours, I get to stay physically fit and I get to spend a lot of time with my family," she said. "My thought process is, if I didn't come back to the sport and swim and be involved with it, 20 years from now, would I look back and regret it and say, 'What if?' I'm at a place in my life where I can continue. In the swimming world, I'm old, but as a human, I'm not old at all."
As we chatted in a small equipment room that June, her little boy, Blaise, was running in circles around us and then outside, chirping, "Hi! Hi!" as his patient father, Sacha Brown, trailed him. At that point in time, Beard's chief concern was how she would balance the demands of training and travel with motherhood. She seems to have done fine.
On Friday, she put herself in position to qualify for her fifth Olympic team, moving smoothly through the preliminary and semifinal heats of the 200 breaststroke to secure the fifth seed in Saturday night's final. Defending Olympic champion Rebecca Soni's time was three seconds ahead of the rest of the field. Despite the fact that Soni was upset in the 100 breaststroke -- or perhaps because of that -- I'm going to go out on a very sturdy limb and say Soni will qualify for the Olympic team in first place, but there will be a spirited battle for second, and I'd be surprised if Beard wasn't in it.
Beard told me in Santa Clara that she thought she could be faster than her younger self. That might not happen even if she makes the team, but she would prove that she can excel when she's happy and stable -- a laudable state for anyone in any profession.
"Physically I don't feel that much different," she said after Friday's prelim. "Mentally I'm stronger, more aware of my surroundings. I'm a stronger person than I was the last 15 years."