Amanda Beard Forever A Wildcat

by Michelle Smith

Amanda Beard didn't show up to college hoping it might lead her to a bright future in her sport.

Her life was already pretty bright before she ever set foot in Tucson, Ariz.

Beard was an Olympic gold medalist when she arrived at the University of Arizona in 2000. She was 14 years old when she won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the second-youngest Olympic medalist in American swimming history. She won one gold and two silver medals in Atlanta and instantly was a national sports hero.

She was 14, in fact, when she visited the Arizona campus for the first time.

"I remember that I thought, 'I like this place. It's hot. There are palm trees. I could go here,'" Beard said.

But it wasn't until Arizona coach Frank Busch, the current coach of the U.S. National team, brought her back to Tucson on a recruiting trip that she was completely sold.

"As soon as I got home, I called him and said 'I love it. I'm going to go,'" Beard said.

Beard said she arrived at Arizona after what she considered three years of sub-par swimming.

"I wasn't at the top of my game," Beard said. "I had kind of forgotten about even trying for the 2000 Games (in Sydney)."

But her experience with the WIldcats turned her career around. She felt like she was among family with her teammates and coaches. She relished the bonds and the support the team provided.

"I started training really well and swimming really fast again," Beard said. "It dawned on me that I could make another Olympics. It wasn't just a matter of coming to college, it wouldn't have happened at any college.

"I loved that 40 or 50 people had your back and they wanted you to succeed. It was so overwhelmingly great."

Beard would go on to compete in Sydney in 2000 and win another Olympic medal. She won three more in 2004 in Athens for a career total of seven Olympic medals. She has competed in four Olympics and broken two world records in the 200 meter breaststroke.

While at Arizona, she won an NCAA individual title in 2001.

Beard spent two years swimming for the Wildcats and said she considers her college experience to be something akin to "my own little mini-Olympics."

"Instead of representing your country, you are representing your school with that same pride, wearing the colors, singing your songs," she said. "It's just one of those things that sticks with you."

Beard loved it so much that she's still there. Beard lives in Tucson with her husband and young son and trains regularly at the University of Arizona. She swims in the morning and goes home to her family in the afternoons.

Beard is still swimming competitively and is pointing toward a fifth Olympic appearance in London in 2012.

She competed in the 2010 U.S. Nationals and the Pan Pacific Swim Championships. She and former Cal star Natalie Coughlin were named captains of the U.S. team at the Pan Pacific meet. Beard has worked as a model and a television spokesperson and is currently writing a memoir about her sometimes-difficult experience being a high-profile athlete.

But she is settled in Arizona. It feels like home.

"I've been training here forever," Beard said. "I'm blessed to get to be somewhat involved in the program still. It's different. I'm married and I have a child, so I'm not hanging out with 19-year-olds. But I still see them on the deck and they give me motivation. I still need the spark, but I'm doing my own stuff."

Beard remembers the days in college where she would swim against other Pac-10 schools and run constantly into Olympic teammates.

"If you run down the list of teams in the Pac-10, you can't get a better group of programs," Beard said. "I think it's very cool that we have that legacy."

Beard is still a part of the Arizona athletics community, and recently attended a men's basketball game.

"I have so much pride being an Arizona athlete, those couple of years I spent on campus were some of the best of my life."

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