US swimmer Amanda Beard was just 14 when she made her Olympic debut in Atlanta, with her teddy bear in tow.
Her performance there catapulted her into the limelight – the three medals claimed, one gold and two silver, made her the second-youngest Olympic medallist in American swimming history.
Having to deal with such fame so young took its toll, and despite success and three further Olympic Games appearances the seven-time Olympic medallist struggled with the lows that were mixed in with those highs.
But now she’s back and has got London firmly in her sights. If selected following the US trials in late June, the 30-year-old will join an elite band of athletes to have competed at five Olympics. But this time, she tells us, she’s doing it for all the right reasons.
What was it that enticed you out of retirement to compete in one final Olympics?
After I had Blaise [Amanda’s 2-year-old son], I initially got in the water to get my body back into shape. As I got fitter, I realised how much I missed the thrill of competition – seeing other swimmers race and break world records made me want to do the same.
It’s 16 years since you made your Olympic debut – has much changed on the circuit since then?
The sport has definitely changed for the better. I love seeing athletes being able to train and compete well after their college careers. In 1996 there weren’t a lot of sponsors in the sport so after you graduated from college you had to get a job. Now there are more opportunities for athletes and it helps our sport when you have familiar names around for 10 plus years instead of just cycling through tons of athletes.
You were so young at the Atlanta Games – looking back, would you change anything?
When I first swam at the Atlanta Olympics I was just there because I thought I had to be there. I wasn’t concerned about all the hype and honestly, for a lot of the time, I was bored – I remember exploring the Olympic Village without a care in the world. Looking back, I wish I understood the meaning of representing our country on such a big stage and how to be thankful for my blessings that I have been given as an Olympic athlete.
Was it hard being so successful so young?
It was. At such a young age, all I wanted was to fit in. People at school would introduce me as ‘The Olympian’, but I wanted to live a normal life and stray away from the spotlight. I struggled to voice the discomfort I felt from the excessive attention I received. I wanted to be an average teenager who went to the mall and movies with my friends. Instead, I was faced with overwhelming media attention and the constant concern with upholding my image.
What are your thoughts on minimum age limits for competing in the Olympics?
For me, it was a struggle being in the spotlight at such a young age, but kids of all ages are bound to deal with life-changing experiences in different ways. I think with a team of supporters by your side, the Olympic Games can be a positive experience for any young athlete, and can really teach you a lot of important life lessons.
You won gold at your very first Olympics. For most athletes, that’s a pinnacle they work their whole life to reach. Having already secured that level of success what keeps you hungry?
I’m swimming for all the right reasons now. At my first Olympic Games I was too young to appreciate what I had worked so hard to achieve. Now I know I was blessed with a gift and I don’t want to give that up. Before, it was about winning. Now it is about the journey and loving the sport. At an older age it’s even more thrilling to beat competitors that are 10 years younger! Now, that is a good feeling.
Have you found it easy to find the home/sport balance?
It’s not easy, but Sacha [Brown, who Amanda married in 2009] and I find a way to make it work. I train in the mornings while Sacha watches Blaise, and then I spend the remainder of the day playing the ‘mommy role’. It’s so wonderful to see him grow up – he appreciates the little things in life and helps teach me to not sweat the small stuff. He’s the reason I keep going!
With so much history, you’re going to be up there as one to beat – do you feed off that sort of pressure?
Of course, friendly competition never hurt anyone, and it makes for a fantastic race! It only motivates me to work harder than anyone else in and out of the pool. I’m swimming for myself now, which makes it easier for me to handle the pressure.
How does it feel to know you’ve inspired other girls to take swimming seriously, and that some of those might be your competition in London?
I am honored to have young swimmers look up to me. I want to be a good role model. I started swimming at a very young age and have experienced a lot that most young females have not, both in and out of the pool. I’m a living, breathing example of one who has been through it all (just read my book, ‘In The Water They Can’t See You Cry’) – the ugly and the pretty. However, I’ve seen that it always turns out ok, and that the trials you are faced with now are the ones that strengthen you and make you who you are today. I’m thankful that I can be that voice and that athlete to look up to, regardless of if I’m swimming against them in London or not.
Who, for you, are the ones to beat?
I would love to be the fastest swimmer in the pool. I am fueling my energy through the competition that the young athletes are bringing to London. For me, I have to beat myself. If I focus on improving my times, I will be nothing but successful. And that way I can’t be dissapointed leaving the pool knowing I did my best,
The excitement is really building up in the UK now, how are the London Games being anticipated in the USA?
Sports fans across the nation are getting pumped for the London Games. The Olympics are huge in the USA! There’s a different kind of sports buzz that starts to rise during an Olympic year and I am thrilled to represent my country and make my fans proud this summer.
Jessica Whittington, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine
Amanda wears Aqua Sphere goggles and swimwear. Highly regarded for their panoramic vision and superbly comfortable fit, check out this award winning range at www.aquasphereswim.com/uk.