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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | MIKE DOWNEY

Time Is Definitely on Her Side

July 22, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — Amanda Beard, a pixie in Dixie, stepped up to the pedestal.

Her medal was silver.

All 10 toenails were painted, different colors.

It was 9:04 p.m. in Atlanta, where an American athlete had just been presented an Olympic medal, past her bedtime.

Amanda Beard, who sleeps with a white, stuffed bunny. Amanda Beard, whose idea of drug use is probably Flintstone vitamins. Amanda Beard, whose innocence charmed everyone so much that Bob Costas said on NBC: "Wow, how likable is she?"

Well, she won't be young long.

"In 2004," as Amanda pointed out, "I'll be 22."

That's two Olympiads from now.

"It'll be my first year out of college."

Oh.

"I want to keep swimming till I'm old."

Ow.

"I mean older."

That's better.

"It'll be my first year out of college."

OK!

Wow, how likable is she?

Just think, Amanda, after your last Olympics, you'll be able to get into the movies for half-price with your senior-citizen discount . . . in 2046.

Back home in California, it was only 6:04 p.m. when Amanda's friends watched the silver medallion go around her neck.

Nice accessory.

She also wants to tattoo the Olympic rings on her leg.

She also wants to dye her yellow hair, shades of Dennis Rodman.

She also wants to spend more time in the athletes' village, where her roommate, Janet Evans, volunteered to wash her clothes.

Amanda Beard is having about as much fun as a 14-year-old girl can have, with 3 1/2 billion people watching you on TV.

"The only thing missing from that wide, toothy grin is an Olympic gold medal," said NBC's Dan Hicks, who evidently thinks Amanda would wear it in her teeth.

Taking her mark, just before the women's 100-meter breaststroke Sunday night at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, the Irvine mermaid got serious.

Her right foot protruded too far over the edge, but it was too late to pull it back. A horn blew and Amanda dived into the pool.

Then a bug got into her eye. That killed any chance Amanda had of seeing her rival, Penny Heyns from South Africa, in the lane directly to her left.

Of their side-by-side splash to the finish, Amanda would say later, "I thought she was way, way ahead of me."

But she wasn't.

Heyns--pronounced "Haynes"--is the world-record holder in this event. She is 21 and has been around. Amanda won't turn 15 until late October. But it took every ounce of strength Heyns had to hold off the kid with the painted toes.

Amanda knew which woman was the one to beat, back in Irvine when she was training for this. Penny Heyns was the name to remember. Penny Heyns was in her ears, and in her eyes, there beneath the blue suburban skies.

And she almost got her.

"I like to have somebody ahead of me," Amanda said of the race. "That person is my goal. It gives me somebody to catch."

Her coach from back home, Dave Salo, said he had a weird dream, a premonition, that Penny would beat Amanda by a fraction of a second.

Her mom was in the stands, clutching Amanda's teddy bear on her lap.

Her dad was in the next seat, surrounded by American kids in "TEAM AMANDA" shirts with teddy bears on the front.

A former Olympic swimmer, Summer Sanders, was in the TV booth, saying Amanda "looks the most calm of anybody out there."

And, when the race was over, it was Amanda who told Penny that she had won.

Amanda took second.

"That was good enough," she said.

All that remained was the award presentation, for which the kid whose usual bedtime is 9 o'clock was very much awake. She hopped up on the stand. She waved to the people of Atlanta, a sprite in the land of Coca-Cola.

Then the favorite daughter of Irvine, Calif., went home to get some rest, because, well, you know, she isn't getting any younger.

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