OMAHA -- The path from teddy bears and owner of a pet menagerie to the cover of Playboy and a most-interesting swimming lesson -- teaching one of Hugh Hefner's girlfriends at the Playboy Mansion -- has zigzagged through 12 years and three Olympics.
Will it twist through a fourth, all the way to Beijing?
Amanda Beard, the self-described "naive and very oblivious" teen of 1996 and now a business-savvy 26-year-old with a long list of endorsements, will have her answer by Friday. That's the final of the 200-meter breaststroke at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, an event in which Beard holds the American record.
The Irvine-raised Beard had fun teasing reporters, saying she intended to race in the 400 freestyle and 200 butterfly.
Joking aside, her other two events will be the 100 breaststroke and the 200 individual medley. She won two individual silvers and a relay gold at Atlanta in 1996, a bronze in the 200 breaststroke four years later in Sydney and gold in the 200 breaststroke and silver in the 200 individual medley.
Beard is one of several intriguing story lines of the trials. She's the female version of Gary Hall Jr., who also will be trying to make his fourth Olympic team. Of course, they are chasing after the ageless Dara Torres, the 41-year-old mother aiming for her fifth Olympics.
Laughing, Beard vowed, unlike Torres, she won't be 41 and swimming competitively and "won't be coming back after having a baby."
"She's got better muscle tone than I do," Beard said, smiling. "It makes me extremely jealous."
And speaking of muscle tone, Beard, as many no doubt know, received plenty of attention for her toned body when she posed for Playboy and drew positive and negative comments. A year removed from baring it all, Beard said as far as she is concerned, the gap between limited clothing and no clothing really isn't much at all.
"The swimming community is really conservative," she said in an interview two weeks ago at UCLA. "I don't know why, because we're in no clothing whatsoever. We're basically naked all the time."
Beard remains glad she did it, and said, if given the chance, she would do it again. One upside is hanging out at the Playboy Mansion and once giving Hefner's girlfriend a swimming lesson.
"I taught Holly how to swim," Beard said. "I was like, 'There's no way she's going to go underwater.' Probably won't want to mess up her hair. But she was going for it, diving under and giggling the whole time."
Balancing the red-carpet life and monastic rigor of swim practice is a delicate dance. It is one that Beard's coach at UCLA, Cyndi Gallagher, didn't quite understand when her new swimmer joined Team Bruin in April.
"She had to go to Las Vegas to judge Miss America?" Gallagher said, remembering the assignment. "What? What? The stuff she does is just beyond my scope of anything."
Still, Gallagher, who has been suitably impressed by Beard's commitment, adjusted and arranged for Beard to practice at Nevada Las Vegas for the two sessions she wouldn't attend at UCLA and took care of the details. "Maybe I'm a control freak," Gallagher mused.
Said Beard: "I feel she's definitely taken a chance on me and put me in a position to even have a chance to make the team."
An epiphany hit Beard when she was at a Grand Prix meet at Stanford in April, then swimming for Dave Salo's Club Trojan at USC. She said she wasn't coming back to the pool.
But Beard had one more thing to do. She sent Gallagher a text message and asked whether the coach would consider taking her on. They met for breakfast, and Beard knew it was the right call and wished she had made the move a year ago.
Beard thought the atmosphere at Club Trojan, filled with the best breaststrokers in the country, had her feeling in an "awful mental state and upset and moody."
"It's hard to train with your competitors," she said. "Every day was super intense. Like you can't get away from it."
On a much lesser scale, it was reminiscent of the charged air at Stanford in 2000, when sprinters Jenny Thompson and Torres had problems coexisting and had to practice separately.
"It's like taking all the top breaststrokers and putting them in a pool together and having them train every day," Beard said.
Said Gallagher: "I spoke with Dave [Salo] and he wanted what was best for Amanda. He's the one who said, 'Don't ever count her out.' It took her two weeks to get in shape. Me? It would take two years."
Beard once had taken a recruiting trip to UCLA before opting for the University of Arizona. Through the years, she had taken note of Gallagher's success, and the emergence of UCLA's Kim Vandenberg, a silver medalist in the 200 butterfly at the world championships last year.
"I don't think people give her as much credit because she's a female coach in a male-dominated world," Beard said of Gallagher.
"It's really weird. But I feel like she's a lot more strict than any of my male coaches I've ever had. My male coaches are pushovers. Girls know how to manipulate.