Amanda Beard became an instant Olympic icon at the 1996 Atlanta Games when she walked onto the pool deck with a teddy bear that endeared the wide-eyed 14-year old swimmer to everyone who watched her compete. She brought home two silver medals and a gold from those Games, but life after the Olympic spotlight would never be the same. Struggling to cope with her parents’ divorce, and crushed by the pressure she felt from public expectations, she developed body image issues and entered into a serious of abusive relationships. Beard earned four more Olympic medals in appearances at the next three Games, and is currently training to make her fifth Olympics. In her memoir, “In the Water They Can’t See You Cry,” Beard discusses for the first time her depression and the self-destructive ways she tried to cope with her symptoms — by cutting herself and becoming bulimic.
Why open up now about things you’ve pretty much kept to yourself?
Honestly I felt like I do a lot things like travel around, talk to a lot of young females, athletes, moms — a whole spectrum of people. I felt like I had so much more I could really share with them, with the life I’ve led, what I’ve overcome and how I dealt with my struggles. I look at people who have dealt with things and come out happier on other side as very inspirational. To me, I thought It would be so cool if I could share my story with people, inspire them, motivate them, give them some sort hope that it’s okay that you’re dealing with things — it’s not embarrassing, and there is nothing to be ashamed about. That you can get happy and healthy. That was my biggest motivation to do it.
What helped you to pull out of your self-destructive behavior?
I didn’t really realize [how self-destructive it was] until I started therapy and become healthier. When I was in those moments, I was too scared to talk to anybody, and I felt extremely embarrassed — I’m such an idiot, how could I be doing these things to myself? I didn’t want to come out and talk to people.
But the reality is that we’re all dealing with different struggles, pressures and stress in all different ways. I want to encourage people not to be ashamed about how they are, and the things they are dealing with. I know exactly how it feels in those moments when you feel you have nobody to talk to, no one to reach out to. I felt that if I did tell anyone, they would look at me different[ly]. But you will honestly feel like a better person and more confident if you take steps in the right direction, by reaching out for help and letting people into your world.
You say that talking to someone about your problems was the most difficult thing for you, because your family didn’t really do that. How hard was it for you to start facing your feelings?
For me, the way I grew up was a huge part of that. You grow up, learn how to deal with things by how your parents deal with things. I wasn’t seeing those things, wasn’t learning from any those things. So I totally confused, lost when I was faced with an issue or problem about how to communicate about that, how to talk it through, how to reach out. I had no idea, had none those skills. And you can only ignore them for so long before things totally build up and the walls around you start literally crumbling.
For you, that moment came when you accidentally discovered cutting during an argument with your boyfriend. You looked down and found you had dug your fingernail into the palm of your hand.
Very much an accidental thing, but I found it relaxed me in a sense. It was an accident how I started it in the first place, but I felt that it was a way I could deal with things. It was an extremely unhealthy way to deal with things, but in those moments I couldn’t figure out anything else, so it’s what I started resorting to.
Even during your difficult emotional times, swimming remained a constant in your life. What role did swimming play in helping you to cope?
I just had a really hard time communicating and having emotions with people and letting things out outside pool. But when I went into the pool I felt like I was in a safe haven. I could cry and deal with things going on in my personal life outside the pool. It definitely became my form of letting go or trying to let go of things.
Were you surprised when you were diagnosed with depression?
Not really. I felt almost validated to hear that there was something going on. I just felt I was in such a horrible place, such a wreck. So it was almost a relief to have someone talk to me about it like, it’s not big deal, everyone goes through it, it’s something we can work on, and figure out, you just need to take these steps. I was in this rut where I didn’t have feelings. I was just going about my life in a depressed state, and I was so sick of that.
Are you still seeing a therapist or taking an antidepressant?
No, neither. Seeing the therapist really opened my mind to knowing that whenever I have something going on in my life — big stresses or issues — I feel a lot more confident now that I’ll be able to reach out to a therapist and discuss things and commit to that instead of pushing it under the rug and ignoring it. I feel like now I have a way different way of looking at different situations.
To what do you attribute your confidence now?
I attribute a lot of it to my husband [photographer Sacha Brown, whom Beard married in 2009], who allows me and encourages me to have guts. I know he will always have my back, and that my family will always be there. The people around you who love and care for you are going to be there no matter what. He has a great way of making a huge situation in my mind into something very tiny teeny. He has a way of diffusing everything, of pushing me in right direction, like go ahead, you can do it. Like go baby bird, you can do it!
You posed for Playboy in 2007, and were criticized by many female athletes and by USA Swimming for your decision. Why did you decide to pose?
The thing was, I was very honored to have even been asked to do something like that. At the same time, I wanted to show people what an athletic body looks like, to be able to overcome my own fears and try to be confident in who I was. So I put myself out there. I knew that I was opening myself up to allowing people to say whatever they wanted about me. But it was one of those things where I felt in a sense it was a confidence boost, I guess.
How is training going?
Training is going great. We’re three months out from Olympic trials, so it’s hectic, but it’s been great. I’m in Tucson so I’m working with the University of Arizona.
If you make your fifth Olympic team, it will be your first as a mother. What will that be like?
I think it will be really cool to have my son at the Olympics and have him share in the experience. He knows mommy goes to swim, comes back and her hair is wet. So it would be fun to show him what mommy goes away to do, and have those memories w/him.
Beard will be competing for a spot on the US Olympic swim team at the Olympic trials June 25 to July 2 in Omaha, Nebraska.