By Deborah Wilker
What were you doing at age 14? Algebra? The mall? Guitar practice?
How about accomplishing your lifelong dream — all before high school really even got under way?
For seven-time Olympic swimming medalist Amanda Beard, returning from the 1996 Atlanta summer games with three medals — one of them gold — was at first exhilarating, then daunting.
“In that moment at 14 years old, I was kind of naïve,” she says. “When I was actually at the Olympics, I was just competing. It hit me when I came home.”
Beard, speaking by phone en route to a Seattle swim camp where she is a coach, says the high school years that followed were far more difficult than she could have imagined.
“All the attention I started receiving from media and my peers made me put a lot more pressure on myself,” she says. “I had many more expectations after-the-fact than when I was actually training for that first games.”
She recounted these challenges, which continued through her 20s, in a 2012 autobiography: In The Water They Can’t See You Cry. Though she was often in top physical condition, Beard would routinely ruminate over body image and was plagued by self-doubt. Long accustomed to wearing swimsuits in front of a crowd, she panicked as she endured typical teenage growth spurts and weight gains, all in front of a worldwide TV audience. Worse yet, swimming insiders would gossip about her slowing race times.
By her college years, Beard’s disordered eating and anxiety had developed into full-blown bulimia. She descended into a harrowing blitz of toxic relationships, fits of rage and depression.
Yet somehow she pressed on — continuing high-level training regimens that reaped medals again at the Sydney and Athens games.
To those looking in, the champion breast-stroker and world record-holder seemed the picture of beauty and strength. But in reality she had all but unraveled — one of several topics she addresses candidly during the many motivational speeches she makes each year. Beard will speak next at a Sun Sentinel and City & Shore Magazine event Oct. 1 in Fort Lauderdale.
“It was those hard teenage years — ages 15, 16, 17 — when I really began to struggle,” says Beard, now 33. “I would believe whatever anyone would say about me. I couldn’t or didn’t know how to shrug it off. It was hard to have a thick skin.”
She calls the physical part of Olympic training “somewhat easy.”
“You go and do your training and whatever else needs to be done.”
But blocking out the din and staying mentally motivated — in athletics and in life — that’s a different game.
“When I speak at events it’s one of my favorite things to talk about,” she says. “What is the daily process to stay focused, to move on from problems, to accomplish what you want, and live that happy life?”
In addition to public speaking engagements and raising two children with her photographer husband of six years, Sacha Brown (who eventually nudged her toward therapy and into recovery), Beard is also a longtime swimming coach. The couple is now building a swim academy near their home in Gig Harbor, Wash.
She says she was unsure if talking about overcoming her own struggles with her young students would be useful to them.
“What it really comes down to is each athlete’s individual support system — their family and friends. I do tell them, it’s just a sport, and people watch sports for entertainment. So you have to view it that way. You have to enjoy the process. Enjoy the memories that you’re making and not over-think things.”
As recently as last year, Beard was still training hard and pondering another Olympics. Now she says if Rio 2016 is in the cards for her, it will either be as some kind of emissary for USA Swimming, the U.S. Olympic Committee, or as a viewer from home.
“My husband was very supportive either way,” she says of her decision to retire. When he pointed out that she had nothing left to prove, she agreed, and felt the time was right to move on.
In her post-Olympics professional life, which also includes modeling assignments, endorsement deals with an exercise equipment manufacturer and a swimwear company, Beard says she’s always using what she has learned over a lifetime in the gym and the pool.
“Athletes don’t just think about what they’re going to do at work this one day. For us it’s a different process. We have this whole thing mapped out for years. Where are we in a year, five years, 10 years?”
One aspect of her competitive career — a point of pride — is that she “swam through multiple Olympics.” Beard’s run — from Atlanta in ’96 through to Beijing in ’08 — was one she was hoping to extend to a fifth Games in London in 2012, but she did not make the team.
Still, she was motivated to keep training after that defeat — and even today continues to wake up at 5 a.m. to work out every day. She says she is at peace with her weight, her body, even bikinis.
“I put a swimsuit on today and I’m definitely not in the same shape as when I was training, but then I also look at my body and it’s really healthy,” she says. “Obviously there are little details that all of us would love to change. I don’t think that ever goes away. But I’m feeling a lot less pressure to look a certain way.”
IF YOU GO
Amanda Beard will be the host and featured speaker at the SunSentinel Party in Pink, 6:30-9:30 p.m. Oct. 1 at the 110 Tower in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets, $45 and $75, SunSentinel.com/PinkTix.