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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

READY FOR THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES : Amanda Beard, 14 : With Rodman as Hero, Breaststroke Star Ponders Dyed-in-the-Pool Outlook

July 14, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You aren't going to want to hear this, America, but your newest darling of the swimming pool, this 14-year-old California girl with her deckside teddy bear, rainbow-colored bedroom, wall-to-wall menagerie of pets and 1996 U.S.-best time in the 100-meter breaststroke, has a role model . . . and his name is Dennis Rodman.

"I like his personality," says Amanda Beard, whose favorite color is orange, which also happens to be on the short list of Rodman's greatest scalp dyes. "He's original.

A personal goal for Beard in '96: "I really want to go see a Bulls game."

Often, while killing time between workouts, Beard plays Pretend Rodman. This entails applying intricate tattoos to the limbs of U.S. swim teammates--with felt-tipped pen, of course; washes off easily in the chlorine--and contemplating ways to do her hair just like the Worm's.

"I've always wanted to dye my hair all sorts of different colors," Beard says, "but Dave [Salo, Beard's coach] doesn't like the idea."

Salo, however, might not have a choice in the matter.

Conspiratorially, Beard confides to an interviewer that she's planning a sneak attack just before the Olympics.

"I think I'll bleach it blond," she says. "Not do something crazy. Then, once it's blond, it's easier to Kool-Aid it."

Kool-Aid?

Nothing but.

"You put Kool-Aid, real Kool-Aid, in your hair," Beard explains. "Whatever colors you want. Some of my friends do it. It just takes a few minutes. The longer you put it in, the longer it will last. It can last two days or two weeks."

Two weeks, America.

Are you ready for your first grape- and lime-dyed Olympic swim medalist?

Dan Beard, who has heard the rumors, plans to keep his daughter far away from the powdered-drink aisle, at least through July 23. "I think she likes Dennis because he's colorful, like a rock star," Dan Beard says. "But, as a family, we're not completely sold on body-piercing and body-painting."

At the moment, Amanda Beard's hair is a sun-streaked brown and, for many hours a day, wet. During races, it is hidden by the black cap of the Irvine Novaquatics, Beard's swim club, which makes for easier viewing.

Just follow the bobbing dark swim cap, the one that never sinks too far below the water's surface, as it rapidly pulls away from the other caps in the pool.

Beard will compete in at least two events in Atlanta--the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke and, possibly, a relay. She won the 100 and the 200 at the U.S. Olympic trials in March with times approaching Anita Nall's American records. Beard won the 100 in 1:08.36 (Nall's mark is 1:08.17) and the 200 in 2:26.20 (Nall's mark is 2:25.35). Beard's 200 time is the second-fastest in U.S. history.

Impressive numbers at any age, let alone a 14-year-old high school freshman, but consider this: At 13, her personal-best time in the 200 breaststroke was 2:41.57.

Four months before her 13th birthday, she was swimming the 100 breaststroke in 1:21.70.

A 15-second drop in the 200. Thirteen seconds in the 100. The incredible shrinking times of Amanda Beard have left swim coaches staring at their stopwatches and shaking their heads--all the while propelling Beard's she-came-out-of-nowhere legend.

"I don't know if we could have envisioned this even a year or a year-and-a-half ago," Dan Beard says, and how could they? Amanda didn't begin training in the breaststroke until age 12.

"A year-and-a-half ago, we set her swimming goals and they were to make the Olympic trials in '96 and possibly put her in position to swim in Sydney in the year 2000."

Now, she's not only positioned to swim in the Olympics four years ahead of schedule, but also to bring home a gold medal. Or two.

"Both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes are going to be very exciting," Salo says. "You're going to have at least three women going for the world record in both those events. I think Amanda will be one of those people."

Beard beat one of them, current world-record holder Penny Heyns of South Africa, in a pre-Olympic tuneup in Phoenix in May. Beard won the 100-meter breaststroke in 1:09.25. Heyns was second at 1:10.76.

It was a lifetime achievement for Beard, but when she phoned home that night to report on how her day had gone, she didn't even mention it.

"I asked her, 'How'd you do?' " Beard's mother, Gayle, recalls. "She said, 'I did good, Mom.' She didn't mention the time. She didn't mention that she beat Penny. Just 'I did good.' "

That's a typical Amanda story. "Amanda's just kind of in her own little world," says friend and U.S. teammate Brooke Bennett. "Nothing gets to her."

Happily oblivious--that's one way to describe the inhabitant of this water-soaked little world.

Just another 14-year-old girl with a world-record-potential leg kick--that's another, as other Amanda stories unfailingly remind.

Some fast Amanda facts:

1. Amanda didn't begin competitive swimming until she was 12. Before that she played soccer, softball and took tap and jazz dance classes.

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