Captures Three Olympic Medals
Beard became a media darling. She was the youngest member of the 1996 Olympic swim team, and the youngest Olympic swimmer since Nicole Kramer in 1976. Sports reporters regaled fans with stories about Beard's love for animals and her dream of pursuing an adult career as an interior decorator. "She likes to race and she refuses to be beaten," Olympic team coach Don Wagner told Johnny Ludden of the Washington Post. "I think her innocence in the sport is one of the things that makes her so good. She's not intimidated by anyone."
At the Atlanta Games, Beard was the Americans' best shot for a medal in the women's breaststroke. South Africa's Penny Heyns, the world-record holder in the 100-meter breaststroke, was another favorite. Beard had beaten Heyns in a pre-Olympic race, and she aimed to win again.
In the 100-meter Olympic final, Beard and Heyns squared off with six other swimmers. Off to a slow start, Beard, who did not wear goggles, had something in her eye early in the race. She started slowly, yet halfway through the race began passing her competitors. She finished second, just behind Heyns, who became South Africa's first Olympic gold medalist in 55 years. Beard, the silver medalist, was happy to learn she had set an American record at 1:08.09.
The 200-meter final was a replay of the 100: Beard started off slowly, then caught up to every other swimmer except Heyns, the former University of Nebraska star. "I just wanted a medal," Beard told the Detroit Free Press. "I didn't care what color it was. I'm happy with silver." Yet Beard would also take home a gold. Swimming in the 400-meter individual medley relay, she and Beth Botsford, Angel Martino, and Amy Van Dyken finished first.
Beard continued to train after the Olympics, but in 1997, she grew four inches, and her changing body perhaps affected her performance. In the 1997 U.S. Swimming national championships, she finished ninth in the 100-meter breaststroke. By 1998 her world ranking had dropped to 53rd in the 200 breaststroke. She quit swimming briefly, then returned as a college student.