The classroom was filled on a Wednesday morning. The usual 36
seats were occupied by the usual 36 students in Physical
Education 290 and English 102, a six-credit combination of
sports psychology and English that meets five days a week at
Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif. Free space at the
back and sides of the room was taken up by students and teachers
from other classes.
The special guest stood at the front near the blackboard, under
a sign that read IDEAS RULE THE WORLD. She was, by far, the
youngest and smallest person in the room--14 years old, 5'3",
maybe 95 pounds. She was a ninth-grader from nearby Irvine High.
She was an Olympic athlete, a swimmer. Amanda Beard. She was the
Q.--What goes through your mind before a race? How do you get
ready for competition?
Q.--You're so young and stuff. Do you feel like you're missing
out on other things? Do you have friends who aren't swimmers?
Q.--So, are we going to see your face on a Wheaties box pretty
Many of the students were athletes, some phys-ed majors who had
fallen in love with sports in high school and were hoping to
move on to careers in coaching or training or some other part of
the phys-ed business. It took no record-breaking leap of the
imagination to think that each of them had at one time hoped to
appear on a Wheaties box.
Yet the only Olympian in the room was this tiny adolescent, her
arms folded across her chest, her blue eyes looking at all of
these college kids looking back at her. During this summer's
Games in Atlanta she would be swimming the 100- and 200-meter
breaststrokes, plus perhaps the breaststroke leg on the
4x100-meter medley relay, and she probably has the best chance
of any U.S. woman swimmer of winning a gold medal in an
individual event. Her time of 2:26.25 in the 200 is the fastest
in the world in 1996. Her time of 1:08.36 in the 100 is the
year's second-fastest, behind only the world record of 1:07.46
swum by Penelope Heyns of South Africa.
Fourteen years old. Why was she the one? Why was her Olympic
daydream being fulfilled instead of somebody else's? Did she
have some quality--physical or emotional--that no one else in
this room had? Did she work harder? Did she have a stronger
genetic background for athletics? Did she make use of a secret
stroke technique or an inspirational mantra? What?
The search was for magic answers to everyday questions. That was
why the room was filled.
Q.--What do you do for nutrition? Are you on a special diet?
Q.--What time do you go to bed?
Q.--What are your workouts like?
Her success has arrived almost without effort--or at least
without inordinate effort. She isn't some high-intensity phenom,
discovered at age two and shipped by overbearing parents to a
faraway state to train under a guru in flip-flops. Her success
has been a surprise, almost as if she were in one of those
Disney movies in which a kid suddenly materializes to lead a
stumbling team to the World Series.
Her father, Dan, is a hotel and restaurant management professor
at Orange Coast College, and that's how Amanda ended up as a
guest in his friend Herb Livsey's class. Her mother, Gayle, is
an art teacher at an alternative high school in Irvine. The
parents are divorced after 23 years of marriage, but they live
within blocks of each other, share custody and are friendly.
Their two older daughters, Leah, 21, and Taryn, 19, also swam
when growing up, as part of an age-group program. Neither swims
"There wasn't exactly a swimming gene pool here," says Dan. "We
weren't setting out to make champions. We just liked the
benefits of the sport, the competition, the fact that it makes
kids schedule their time, the friendships that it brings.
Nothing really was predestined, although I will say that when
Amanda was five years old, she did say she was going to swim in
the Olympics. We all just smiled."
Until about 2 1/2 years ago, Amanda was on the same ordinary
course her sisters had followed. Swimming was just another
activity. She played soccer. She raised an assortment of pets.
In January 1994--when she joined the Novaquatics club full time
after swimming recreationally through grammar school--she was a
butterfly specialist. She hated the breaststroke.
As part of the Novaquatics' program, she was tested in all the
strokes. When she butchered the breaststroke kick, assistant
coach Brian Pajer, a breaststroke finalist at the 1992 U.S.
Olympic trials, flinched. He hated to see someone treat his
favorite stroke so badly. He worked on teaching Amanda the right
technique. She learned. The result was a graph of improved
performance that would make any money-market manager proud.
Amanda had stumbled onto the perfect event.
The breaststroke somehow seems built for adolescent girls. Or
vice versa. The U.S. record for the 100 and the 200 were set by
Anita Nall in 1992, the summer she turned 16. At the Barcelona
Olympics that year, Nall finished second in the 100 to
19-year-old Yelena Rudkovskaya of the Unified Team and third in
the 200 behind winner Kyoko Iwasaki of Japan. Iwasaki was a
surprise. Then again, she had just celebrated her 14th birthday.
"There are a lot of things that probably have worked together
for Amanda," Dan says. "Her physiology is blessed for this
event. She is slender, but her legs are powerful for the kick.
Her ankles are very loose. The coaches all talk about that. She
is mentally tough. She works very hard. She wants to improve.
Plus, she is blessed by being in this program at Novaquatics,
where they don't burn her up or burn her out. She'd get burned
up in some high-powered program."
While Amanda was still in the recreational program, Novaquatics
coach Dave Salo had talked with Dan and Gayle about their
daughter's potential. Amanda and her parents decided she would
join the full-time program--though Amanda cried at the idea of
leaving soccer--to concentrate on swimming. During the school
year she now had swim workouts five afternoons and three early
mornings a week. "There were a number of people who were talking
to us, saying we had to make the commitment," Dan says. "We
would have been remiss, I think, if we hadn't followed up."
Salo, a former USC assistant, is a low-pressure coach in a
high-pressure sport. He is a proponent of high-speed,
race-quality training rather than high-mileage training. He is
not a believer in heavy weight training, especially for teenage
girls. "I tell all the kids in our program that they're training
for the Olympic trials," Salo says. "That is the goal. Maybe
none of them will make it, maybe one or two or three, but that
is the goal."
Beard followed Salo's instructions, hitting whatever standards
he suggested. From a time of 1:33 in the 100 in January 1994,
when she started serious training, she dropped to 1:15 by that
August. By last summer, she had shaved off another five seconds.
This March she swam her 1:08.36 to win the Olympic trials in
Indianapolis in a breeze. She clutched a teddy bear at the press
How fast was Beard's progress? She skipped the whole junior
nationals scene, going straight to the senior nationals. How
fast? A year and a half after starting to learn the correct way
to do the breaststroke, she was swimming the 100 and the 200 at
the Pan Pacific championships in Atlanta for the national team
and finishing third in both. How fast? She broke two of Olympic
champion Tracy Caulkins's meet records at an event in Southern
California last year and then said she had never heard of Tracy
It has been, for a ninth-grader, a jolt. She has traveled to
faraway cities without her parents. She has had microphones
stuck in front of her face and been asked her opinions on
various subjects. When she returned from the trials as the first
Novaquatics qualifier for the U.S. Olympic team since 1984, a
pep rally was held in her honor at Irvine High. Like a star, she
was driven to the rally in a 1964 Bentley.
"It's all great, but it's scary, too," Gayle says. "You have to
put your trust in a lot of people, some of whom you really don't
know very well. Ninth grade, in itself, is a tough time for a
kid, going to high school for the first time. She's struggled
sometimes with the workload. Ninth grade is a time when you
really don't want to be singled out, to be different.
"I worry a lot. I worry about jealousy, somebody saying
something mean and hurting Amanda's feelings. I worry about
people saying something about her physically that she hears.
You're so insecure. Suppose she has a zit or something, and
people are talking about that? All of this is exciting, but some
days I just want to cover her up in her bed and protect her."
Her events in Atlanta will be on the second and fourth days of
the Games. Her big competition will come from Heyns, Samantha
Riley of Australia and any number of surprise candidates from
China, Japan and/or Eastern Europe. The races should be two of
the best in the Olympics. "We're treating this as going to a big
party," says Salo in his low-impact way. "There just happens to
be a swim meet in the first few days."
Q.--Do you ever feel any pressure? Do you worry about not living
up to expectations?
Q.--Are there places you feel you have to improve? What are they?
Q.--Do you swim for the high school team? What is that like? Do
you give the other kids a head start, just to make the race fair?
She answered all the questions in a pleasant, self-conscious
way. Food? She likes snacks. She likes candy. She likes chicken
McNuggets and English muffins with cinnamon sprinkled on top.
Sleep? She is usually in bed by nine o'clock. She needs 10 hours
of sleep or she feels cranky. School? She has had trouble with
algebra. She doesn't get it. Friends? Most of her friends swim,
but she has other friends who don't. Pressure? She hasn't felt
it. Improvement? She needs work on her turns. A lot of work.
High school competition? In fact, at the time of the class visit
she still hadn't swum for the high school team; the season
hadn't begun. But she didn't plan to give anyone a head start.
She was normal. Maddeningly normal. Salo pointed out that there
is less pressure on a 14-year-old than there would be on a
swimmer of 24 or 25 who was trying to finish her career with the
performance of a lifetime. Amanda will go from the Olympics to
three more years of high school and four years of college. She
could end up back at the Olympics, maybe more than once.
Q.--Could we have your autograph?
The college football players and basketball players and
volleyball players and gymnasts struggled out of their one-armed
classroom seats and formed a line. They opened their textbooks,
How to Play the Game of Your Life, by George A. Selleck, to the
front page. The ninth-grader, the smallest person in the room,
signed her name again and again.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER [Amanda Beard adjusting bathing cap]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER ORIGINALLY A BUTTERFLYER, BEARD TOOK TO THE BREASTSTROKE AFTER A COACH CORRECTED HER KICK [Amanda Beard doing breaststroke]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER trampoliner beard will bounce into atlanta with the highest hopes of any u.s. woman swimmer [Amanda Beard jumping in air]