Amanda Beard is a four-time Olympian, 7-time Olympic medalist, world champion and NCAA champion.
She made her first Olympic team at the 1996 Olympics as a 14-year old, winning two silvers in the breaststroke events and a gold in the medley relay. In 2004, Beard would break the world record in the 200-meter breaststroke at Trials before winning gold at the Athens Olympics.
Her 2013 auto-biography, In the Water They Can’t See You Cry (Print | Kindle | Audiobook) is the searing backstory of what happens when a world of fame, success, and the bottomless and flighty expectations of strangers arrive at your doorstep.
On the surface, Beard’s story looked like the dream. She was a California girl with a big smile and a relentless work ethic. But her time at the apex of the sport was far from easy.
After winning three medals at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 at the age of 14, she struggled to cope with the fame, expectations, and fair-weather attention that came with Olympic glory.
Depression, body image issues, self-harming, eating disorders, the cruelty of sportswriters—it was a lot for a shy teenager to handle. Her book is this journey, a primer for young girls (and boys) who are struggling to find their way and place in sport and in life. A companion for those trying to navigate the uncertainties and pressures of young adulthood.
Beard’s story is complex. The highs–Olympic glory, world records, celebrity, are just as intense and as visceral as the lows–self-harming, depression, lousy relationships.
We tend to lionize and mythologize our sports heroes, unwilling to accept that they have flaws, doubts, and issues like everyone else. But Beard shows us the real, sometimes ugly life behind the fantasy.
Below is just a sample the key passages, quotes, and my own thoughts on Amanda Beard’s In the Water They Can’t See You Cry.
Even Olympic champions start at the back of the lane
Like many swimmers, Beard got the chlorine bug in summer swimming. When Beard joined NOVA, one of the top aquatics programs in Southern California, she found herself the small fish in a big pond.
On day one, she was easily the slowest swimmer in the group. Barely able to make the intervals, she took it as a challenge to try and keep up with the other swimmers in the pool.
- “While I hated to be slower than the others around me, I understood this was an adjustment period. My speed didn’t dictate my dedication. There was no way I was going to give up just because I wasn’t the best. I loved being in the pool; I loved swimming.”
The pool was a reprieve
When Beard’s parents divorced, she found refuge in the water, taking comfort in the things she could control, and finding an outlet through the sport.
- “In the water, I didn’t have to think about any of that… I was glad to be completely consumed in a cleansing weightless-ness. Everything was washed away. The top of my head down to my toes was so light as to not exist. I didn’t worry for my dad or for myself. I wasn’t angry at my mom or resentful of my sisters. I just wasn’t.”
She took the pain and uncertainty and channeled it in the pool towards her workouts.
- “All of my focus and energy went into completing the interval. The harder the training, the better… I wanted the work to take everything I had in order to achieve it. And being the slowest swimmer, getting beat all the time, was definitely a challenge. Watching my teammates pass me ignited my competitive sparks. If the urge to win hadn’t consumed me, I never could have withstood the pain.”
The power of distraction
Like all swimmers, Beard found creative ways to distract herself and count reps, strokes and sets in the pool.
- “I turned to my powers of distraction…I’d play with the intervals [coach] Brian gave us. (If we are going to do twenty-five laps at thirty seconds a lap, how many minutes will the entire set take?) I parsed time in as many ways as I could come up with, and when I ran out of ideas, I used the eight black lines at the bottom of the pool for my computations… The random numbers that found me in the pool soothed my brain. I escaped from the pain—of home, of intervals—but remained sharp. All that number crunching turned me into a precision instrument in the pool. Knowing exactly how many strokes it took me to do a lap, I could swim with my eyes closed.”
Swimming is largely a solo endeavor
Even though we train in a group within a team, there is often little room for conversation between sets and rushing out the locker room to get home for the nightly dinner/homework combo platter.
- “Swimming is very individual in nature… You say a sentence before practice and then another to announce you’re leaving. It’s impossible to gossip when your face is in the water. In swimming, that fact weeds out a lot of people, but I was grateful for the isolation.”
But the individualistic nature of the sport also helps create a sense of accountability, even if that meant it also came with additional pressure.
- “I was happy to be in charge of myself and no one else. It meant more pressure. There was no one else to blame if I didn’t swim well. I was accountable for showing up, getting in the pool, and working my ass off. But I was also in complete control of my success. I wanted to earn every single win and suffer every loss myself.”
Improving technique almost always involves a struggle period before you get the hang of it.
Where things feel worse. Where you struggle. Stepping backward before you can move forward.
- “Picking apart my stroke, [coach] Brian had so many comments and changes that by my second lap, I felt as if I had forgotten how to swim and was on the verge of drowning. He was asking me to change what seemed natural to me as walking. On my third lap, I might as well have drowned, I was so bad.”
Exponential improvement leaves little room for appreciation of the ascent
In 1994, Beard dropped almost 20 seconds off her personal best time in the 100m breaststroke. She went from age grouper to national contender in less than nine months.
Her improvement was so fast that it was hard to gauge the significance of it. She didn’t have time to think about what it all meant.
- “I was cool about the whole thing because I didn’t know any better. My nonchalant attitude wasn’t a put-on for the press but rather sheer ignorance. I had no idea that my meteoric rise was unheard-of.”
“Same pool length and depth”
In August 1995, she made her first international team. Pan Pacific Championships. Being surrounded by the fastest swimmers in the country on the national team, the seriousness that her teammates exhibited struck her as odd.
Because of her inexperience and ignorance, she was able to stick to what had worked so far.
- “I couldn’t understand my other U.S. teammates’ stress. The older kids were edgy during practice, the pressure growing with the mounting hype. Just as in Santa Clara and all year long, I was totally clueless. The press and the internal politics of swimming were not part of my universe. To me, the Pan Pacs hardly felt any different from local meets. There were the same rhythms and routines. The same pool length and depth. Basically, just step on the block, dive in, and go.”
She won silver in Atlanta, even if the media saw it as losing gold
At the Atlanta Olympics, after taking silver in both individual breaststroke events, she got a taste of the avalanche of expectations that were to come.
“Are you upset that you didn’t win gold?” a reported asked Beard after the 200-meter breaststroke in Atlanta.
- “Having raced as hard as I could and beaten girls ten years older than me, I was genuinely excited about silver. I couldn’t imagine how anyone would view second in the whole world as a failure.”
Inexperience can be an asset
At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Beard was just 14-years old. She’d ascended very quickly in the sport. The exponential rate of improvement meant that she hadn’t settled into the same expectations and seriousness that her older teammates on the US Olympic team had acquired over time.
Her inexperience, her ignorance, was an asset. Beard would cruise to a silver medal behind Penny Heyns of South Africa in the 100-meter breaststroke.
- “The confidence of youth turned inexperience into validation. My silver medal proved to me that my attitude—swimming is for fun—was the right one. I had no idea what kind of pressures the older swimmers faced (for them this was no game), and no one thought it important to educate me.”
Body image became a focal point when she hit puberty at age 15.
- “After practice, I no longer stood in the communal area to change out of my bathing suit and into my clothes but hid in one of the private changing stalls that almost nobody used except me.”
- “Weight was by far the most popular topic of conversation in the locker room, beating out swimming and even boys. It got replayed almost every day, and yet each time I heard girls talking about heavy they were, I thought, But she’s really skinny. I’m way bigger than her. Unlike the rest of my teammates, I didn’t express my revulsion with my body out loud… Nobody wanted to hear my problems anyway. I just needed to be tougher and get a hold of these bad thoughts and keep my weight down.”
Where she used to be able to go to the pool and use it as a refuge, swimming had now become a source of angst and stress.
- “My onetime safety zone was falling apart… Before puberty, I would have described swimming as easy, comfortable, and natural. Then all of a sudden, I was a completely different person in the water and swimming a completely different sport. I had to relearn how to swim carrying twenty-five pounds of extra weight.”
Going from hunter to hunted
Six months after the Olympics, Beard swam at a meet in Long Beach. The energy felt different as she walked out onto the pool deck.
- “There was no ignoring how the other swimmers grew quieter and eyed me intensely. They all wanted to beat me.”
Beard would place fourth.
- “Deeply ashamed of the new me, a failure who crushed others’ heartfelt expectations, I hated swimming more than anything.”
- “Swim meet after swim meet, I continued to let everyone down. I was nowhere close to my normal times, easily adding four to five seconds to my 100-meter breaststroke, and by no means any longer a winner.”
With Beard struggling, and no longer in the top few swimmers in the US in her events, she was no longer making international teams. With that, fewer people were approaching her for autographs at events.
- “The glare of the spotlight, previously a source of so much anxiety for me, ironically hurt when it faded away.”
The critics can be exceptionally cruel. And can solidify the worst things you think about yourself.
Beard’s father kept newspaper stories and clippings in a scrapbook. Anytime Beard made a team, broke a record, or made the paper, he would clip the story. He also kept the bad ones (but not in the scrapbook). Beard stumbled upon them while looking for a newspaper with movie showtimes. (pre-internet!)
- “Reading the dozen or so articles in my lap, I saw clearly why these hadn’t made it into the book. Sportswriters called me fat, washed-up, and finished. I’d never do anything good in swimming again, they wrote. There it was in black and white, a complete validation of the negative voice playing on a loop in my head. It was true. I was a fat loser. The words I attacked myself with stared out at me from the page, causing a kind of sweet dread.
- “[It] hurt so much it almost veered 180 degrees into pleasure. I wrapped myself up in sadness like a martyr, then tucked the clips back in their hiding spot so my dad wouldn’t know I had found them.”
She started purging freshman year of university.
After going out for dinner with some teammates her freshman year at the University of Arizona, she felt guilty after polishing a burger and fries.
- “Walking back to my dorm, I became more and more disgusted with the way my stomach strained against my jeans. I wanted a perfect flat tummy with defined abs, not a paunch.”
By the time she got back to her room, she decided that she needed to purge herself of the food. She went to the bathroom and threw up her food.
- “And it worked. I felt lighter and had a sense of satisfaction.”
The combination of partying, late nights, purging, and training like a world-class athlete were tough to handle. But it was hard to give up anything.
- “Even if my purging had hurt my swimming, I wouldn’t have stopped. I wanted to be a great and fast swimmer, but more than that I wanted to be pretty, skinny, and perfected. Those hazy adjectives were squashing my will to swim.”
In 2003 and 2004, Beard finally reached the pinnacle
In July of 2003, Amanda Beard let the world know that she was back.
It had been seven years since her silver medal winning performance in Atlanta, and three years since winning a bronze in the 200m breaststroke in Sydney, but at World Championships she ascended to the peak.
She swam a 2:22.99 in the 200m breaststroke, winning gold at Worlds, and tying the world record. She was just as surprised as everyone else by the time. A staggering drop of two and a half seconds off her personal best time.
- “You do that when you are a ten-year old kid, not a twenty-one-year-old who’s been swimming for seventeen years.”
The following year, she would break the world record again at Olympic Trials and win her first individual Olympic gold medal in the 200m breaststroke in Athens.
She eventually came to terms with being an imperfect role model
For a long time Beard struggled with maintaining the illusion of the All-American swimmer girl. She faced considerable backlash from her modeling, including a Playboy spread in 2007. Eventually, she started to bring the full depth of her journey to the surface. Getting the struggles out in the open helped her come to terms with herself.
- “The greatest realization for me is that I have earned more respect because of the real-life story behind my image and accomplishments. If being a role model means I don’t have to be perfect, then I am all for it.”
Where to Buy “In the Water They Can’t See You Cry” by Amanda Beard