Amanda Beard first appeared on the Olympic swimming team at 14, the little girl who tugged a teddy bear, Harold, around Atlanta. Yet at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials here, she has shown that she is now not only a poised young woman, but one with a competitiveness that shows why Harold, for so long, was stored away in her father's closet.
Beard entered Monday, the sixth day of the trials, having already qualified for the Athens Games in two individual events. For a meek little girl, that might be enough. For Beard, it wasn't.
Beard stunningly shaved a half second off the world record in the 200-meter breaststroke, showing that she will be a threat for her first individual gold at the Games. The 22-year-old from nearby Irvine, Calif., finished the race in 2 minutes 22.44 seconds, beating the world mark of 2:22.96 set just three days earlier by Australia's Leisel Jones.
When Jones set that record at a meet in Brisbane, Australia, Beard's network of friends got word to her quickly. The challenge was there.
"People were like, 'Are you going to go for it? Are you going to go for it?' " Beard said.
She did, and she made it clear that it is Jones who appears to be her chief competition for the gold in Athens, for she clearly has no peer stateside.
Caroline Bruce, 18, was the surprise runner-up, but Bruce was nearly five seconds off Beard's pace.
"It feels good, but it's not satisfying," Beard said.
"I still want to do it again and again and again and again," she said. "I want to keep pushing myself. I think as long as I'm not satisfied, I'm going to keep striving to be greater." Thus, Beard set the stage for the rest of her summer. Not just gold.
That would also seem to be the standard for Natalie Coughlin, the most versatile member of the American team, though she is swimming a scaled-down schedule at these trials. Coughlin was the heavy favorite in the 100 freestyle, an event in which she holds the U.S. record.
At the turn of the race, she seemed in control, leading upset-minded Maritza Correia and Jenny Thompson through 50 meters. Thompson, quite famously, has eight Olympic golds, all of them in relays. She is back for a fourth Olympics -- she qualified earlier in the week by finishing second in the 200 butterfly -- in part, at least, because she wants a shot at an individual gold.
So what happened? Kara Lynn Joyce, a 19-year-old who just completed her freshman year at the University of Georgia, upset them both. As Thompson faded over the final 25 meters, Joyce dramatically outkicked the competition. Headed into this meet, her best time in the 100 free was 55.56 seconds, Coughlin's 53.99. Yet Monday evening, Joyce touched the wall first in 54.38, just .04 ahead of Coughlin.
When the pair, swimming in adjoining lanes, realized what had happened, Coughlin immediately broke into a smile and embraced Joyce. To others, Coughlin's second-place finish might have seemed a letdown, considering all that is expected of her this summer. Yet in defeat, Coughlin displayed the combination of grace and graciousness for which she is becoming known.
"Disappointed?" Coughlin said. "How can I be disappointed? I just made a second event at the Olympics. I can't be prouder of Kara Lynn. She's an amazing person."
The top four finishers in the event qualify for the 400 freestyle relay team. Stunningly, those finishers didn't include Thompson. Amanda Weir, 18, finished third, with Correia in fourth, Thompson fifth. Correia thus became the first African-American woman on the U.S. Olympic swim team, and the "ultimate teammate," as Thompson has come to be known, will have to prove to U.S. women's coach Mark Schubert that she deserves to be placed on the relay team. Though Thompson said she was "disappointed with my time and performance" Monday, she certainly has her supporters.
"It's really, really hard to count Jenny Thompson out of that relay," Coughlin said. "I think she'd rather die than lose a relay."
At times, it seems that men's freestylers Gary Hall Jr. and Jason Lezak would rather die than embrace each other. The two have played down their running feud in recent days, but they will meet again Tuesday night in the final of the 50 free, in which Hall won gold in 2000. Lezak, who already won the 100 free at the trials, posted the fastest time in Monday's preliminary heats, 21.98 seconds, just better than Hall's 22.12.
"It's the big show [Tuesday] night," Hall said.
For Beard, the big show could have easily been Monday. Yet she will be in the Olympics in the 100 breaststroke, the 200 individual medley, the medley relay and the 200 breaststroke. Sheepishly, she admitted that her father had pulled old Harold out of the closet, without her knowledge, and brought him to Long Beach. Still, she made it clear that the rest of her summer is about tenaciousness, not teddy bears.
"I put on my blinders, and did the things that I know to do," she said. "I know better now than to sprint. You run to break records, and it pushes you to do more."