It's appropriate that Amanda Beard lives in the same county in Southern California where Disneyland is located, given her storybook rise from being an unranked age group swimmer to an Olympic silver medallist in both breaststrokes in a little over two years.
Swimming was just another activity for Beard until 1994. Then 12, she also played soccer and raised a dog, cats, rabbits, and birds. And she didn't like breaststroke. Butterfly was her event.
But Brian Pajer, the head age group coach of the Irvine Novaquatics, insisted his pupils learn breaststroke because that's what he knew best. Pajer placed seventh in the 100 breast at the 1992 U.S. Olympic trials prior to taking the Irvine job.
"He hated my breaststroke because it was so horrible," Beard recalls. "He persuaded me to work on it more. I stayed after practice and got lessons."
Pajer, who trained with gold medalist Mike Barrowman under Hungarian Joszef Nagy, taught his swimmers a breaststroke style very similar to the "rolling or wave" technique of Nagy. In this technique, there is very little time wasted between the propulsion of the legs and the arm pull.
"It's much more fluid and efficient than the conventional stroke because there's no pause in it," says Pajer. "That pays off, especially in the 200 breaststroke."
Beard's extraordinary improvement came once she learned to utilize her powerful legs effectively.
"The kick is the most important part of the stroke," Pajer says. "You can teach the pull and you can teach the timing. But a natural kick is really hard. You have to have the correct angle and flexibility and a good feel for the water to do the right kick. That's more of a natural talent than something that's taught.
"She needed to be taught how to use her natural feel for the water. When she learned which direction to kick and how to do it, then her feel took over. Once I saw what her kick could do - which took about two months to develop - I knew she would be good, although I wouldn't have said she'd be in the Olympics in two years."
The Irvine youngster took just three months to improve 20 seconds down to a 1:10 in the 100 yard breaststroke. When the long course season began, she dropped from 1:40 in the 100 metrer breaststroke to 1:15.47. She then decided to give up soccer and focus on swimming.
"That was hard for me to do," says Beard. "I liked soccer a lot. But everybody wanted me to stop soccer to concentrate on swimming. So I did."
The move paid off. Beard got better and better so fast that she made the senior national standards shortly after making junior cuts and never swam at a junior nationals. She joined Irvine's senior group under coach Dave Salo in January of 1995 and competed in her first U.S. nationals two months later, finishing fifth in the 100 breast (1:12.45) and third in the 200 (2:33.05). For the 200 final, Salo told his swimmer to pick up her turnover pace with 70 meters to go and not worry about what place she was in. She obeyed.
"That's when I knew that here was a special swimmer," says Salo. "A lot of kids ignore your direction, or they just don't get it. She went from eighth to third. If I had picked a spot a little sooner, she probably would have caught the entire field."
Beard became the fourth 13 year old ever to capture a U.S. title when she won the 100 breast (1:10.37) at the 1995 summer nationals. She was runner-up in the 200 (2:29.46). She placed third in both breaststrokes two weeks later at the Pan Pacific meet.
At the pressure-packed U.S. Olympic trials the following March, Beard was the youngest swimmer at 14 to win an event, sweeping the breaststrokes (1:08.36, 2:26.25).
"Amanda has an exhilaration when she competes that, like other top swimmers, sets her apart from the others," says Salo. "She's not afraid to compete. You can get her up on the block anytime and anywhere against anybody, and she doesn't dread it."
Beard showed that fearlessness at the Olympics, setting an American record (1:08.09) in the 100 breast and producing the second-fastest U.S. time ever in the 200 breast (2:25.75) in taking second to South Africa's Penny Heyns in both races. The young American made up almost two seconds on Heyns on the final lap of the 200, falling short of victory by 34-hundredths.
"I was very happy," says Beard. "They were both good times for me. I raced hard. I did the best I could do. I came back strong like I like to do."
To remain eligible for high school and college competition, Beard turned down a total of $65,000 in prize money offered by U.S. Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee for her two silver medals and a gold on the medley relay. The strict rules for school competition in the USA also prevented her from the opportunity to make money from endorsements, probably a sizeable sum with her slender look and bubbling personality.
"I want to save that for later in life," she says. "I had swum one year of high school before the Olympics. It was fun. I didn't want to give that up."
Beard didn't find it hard to resume training following the Olympics, either.
"I have a lot of friends on the team," she says. "It's easy to go to practice because you get to see them."
The difficulty for the growing teenager, who has shot up several inches in the last year to 5 feet 8 and 120 pounds, will be sustaining her success in an event that has seen young stars come and go quickly. Salo thinks his controversial training program may allow Beard some longevity because she's not doing the brutal yardage day in and day out that can damage her knees or shoulders. The Irvine swimmers go no more than 40,000 yards in a week, relying on high-speed, race-quality training rather than high-mileage practices. Amanda does double workouts just two days a week.
"I liken it to how you use an Indy 500 car," says Salo, who developed the program while earning his master's degree at Cal State Long Beach University and a doctorate at USC. "Whereas most people put-put around the track and never rev an engine up more than a few times, we're going through time trials every day. We're maximizing our speed to get the 'pole position.'
"If a swimmer wants to go 1:08 in the breast, why are we going 20,000 a day at a speed equivalent to 1:15. It doesn't make any sense to be training this way. Our team's breaststrokers are able to come back well the last 50 of a 200 because of the way they train."
Beard is sold on Salo's program, pointing out that she isn't the only one doing well. Steve West, another Irvine breaststroker, barely missed making the U.S. Olympic team with a third in the 200 and fourth in the 100.
Nonetheless, injuries have slowed Beard down this season. She experienced ankle problems in the fall stemming from an old soccer injury, had surgery this winter to remove a cyst from her right wrist and recently has been suffering from pain in her knee and in her left hip.
She remains positive, saying, "I'm not worrying about the future right now. I'm going to take it as a fun thing, like a game. I'm just going to have fun."