With her tattoo, her silver medals, and an Olympic gold she had won in a relay, Beard continued swimming throughout high school and struggled to adjust her stroke as she shot up five inches in height. She was ranked only sixth in the country in the breaststroke when she made the Olympic team in 2000, so no one really expected her to win a medal. But Beard earned a bronze in the 200-meter breaststroke in Sydney. "That Olympics was a little bit different for me," she says. "I was still a teenager, but I was starting to think, You know, I could maybe make a career of this."
She went off to the University of Arizona, where she won an individual NCAA Division I championship in 2001. Then, at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona, she broke the world record for the 200-meter breaststroke and was thrust back into the spotlight.
The swimmer America was reintroduced to in 2003 was very different from the gawky 14-year-old with the teddy bear they'd awwed over seven years before. She'd grown into her huge smile, and some curves had appeared on her 5 foot 8 inch' frame. With her full lips, blue eyes, and high forehead, more than a few people commented on her resemblance to another bad girl, Angelina Jolie.
Beard made the most of her newfound sex-symbol status, posing for a revealing spread in FHM magazine that rankled USA Swimming. "After that, I had a lot of people hating," Beard remembers. "They were saying, ‘Oh, you're a woman and you're an athlete and you should be holding yourself to higher standards.' But I didn't see a problem with it at all. It's not like I was forcing people to buy the magazine."
But many people did. And with millions of Americans watching (including more than a few men who had probably never seen a swim race before), Beard swam her way onto the 2004 Olympic team and headed off to Athens to compete. With four Olympic medals to her name, she didn't have to prove anything. But she says she really wanted to win gold. "I was just like, Gosh, I know I can do this. I am at the best physical shape that I could possibly be, and I'm sitting here thinking, Why can I not bring home a gold medal in this event?" She put a lot of pressure on herself in the weeks leading up to the 2004 Olympics, and it paid off. She won gold in her signature event, the 200-meter breaststroke, and she picked up two more silver medals in the relays. "It was this huge relief," she says. And she and the other swimmers celebrated accordingly.
"Everyone had been cooped up, stressed out of their minds for the last year, and people went crazy. I think they gave us a curfew of, like, 6 a.m. because they basically just wanted to make sure were still alive in the mornings,"she says, laughing. "We have a really dull sport, where we stare at the bottom of the pool …. So when we get to go out and, uh, socialize, we're pretty crazy. Swimmers party hard, probably harder than any other sport."
The fun continued after the Olympics, too. "After I got the gold, it was like, okay, now I can continue with my life," she says. She picked up a few new hobbies, including snowboarding, surfing, and riding street bikes. She also picked up more tattoos. "Oh man, I don't remember most of them. There's a star on the back of my calf that means nothing—it's just swirly colors. I have three stars on my lower back, they have the letters A, T, and L in them, which stands for Amanda and Taryn and Leah, my sisters. I also have the name Ray tattooed on my leg. It's my middle name, my dad's middle name, and my grandpa's name."