On March 7, 1996, a 14-year-old phenom put down Harold — her lucky teddy bear — adjusted her cap, swung her arms like petite propellers and stepped up to the blocks.

“She’s not very big, Rowdy,” observed NBC Sports announcer Dan Hicks. “She only stands 5-foot-3. She’s just 92 pounds, but she has loomed large in the swimming world and is a rising star, and it’s come in a hurry for her.”

“The thinness of her is going to help her. She’s not going to get tired,” added color commentator Rowdy Gaines, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in his own right. “She doesn’t have a lot of pure speed as far as going out, but she will come home on the rest of the field.”

By then, the book was already out on Amanda Beard. At 12, the Newport Beach, California, native began training in the breaststroke. At 13, she won her first national title as an unassuming eighth grader — before adding a silver and two bronzes at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Atlanta in August 1995.

At 37, she opened a swim school in Gig Harbor, pouring decades of passion into a different pool. “Beard Swim Co.” was born — but more on that in a minute.

A quarter-century ago, seven other swimmers qualified for the championship final of the women’s 100-meter breaststroke at the U.S. Olympic swim trials in Indianapolis.

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But once the buzzer sounded, the race belonged to Beard.

For the next decade, it appeared, nearly everything did.

Beard — who won that race without even bothering to wear goggles, with a pool-record time of 1:08.36 — qualified for four consecutive Summer Olympics from 1996 to 2008, earning a total of seven medals as an American mainstay. She set a world record in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials, then earned her first individual Olympic gold medal in the same event in Athens a few months later. She also secured a national title in the 100-meter breaststroke at the University of Arizona in 2001, took home a pair of golds at the Pan Pacific championships in 2002 and was named a co-captain of the U.S. women’s Olympic swim team in Beijing in 2008.

“We all don’t have Amanda Beards. I don’t have four more Amanda Beards that are following up behind Amanda Beard,” said Dave Salo, Beard’s former coach at Irvine Novaquatics, in a speech in 1996. “When you get an Amanda Beard, it’s a very exciting opportunity to do some things that you never thought you were able to do or would ever get the opportunity to try.”

But while she succeeded, she struggled. Beard battled bulimia, body dysmorphia, depression and drug use throughout much of her swimming career — as described in her 2012 memoir, “In the Water They Can’t See You Cry.” Her self-esteem was eroded by an uncompromising pursuit of perfection, and a public spotlight.

Eventually, Beard’s husband, Sacha Brown, encouraged her to seek help.

After which, she used her story in an attempt to help others.

“(The idea for the memoir) all really started because I did a lot of speaking engagements and swim clinics with younger athletes,” she said. “You show up and you give a speech and you answer questions, and I felt like I was telling all the wonderful, great things that I’d experienced in my life and that had happened to me. And every time I would walk away from one of these events I always would have this feeling of almost guilt, because I didn’t feel like I was being truthful to them and sharing the reality of life and being an athlete or just being a person trying to grow up.

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“I was sick of going to these events and saying, ‘Oh yeah, just work really hard and you’ll be on top of the podium.’ I wanted them to know that it’s OK to fall down and it’s OK to have lots of bumps and bruises and really struggle along the way.”

Beard survived the bumps and bruises. And, after failing to qualify for the London Olympics in 2012, then giving birth to her second child the following year, she effectively retired from competitive swimming in 2014.

At which point, she sought to fill a hole the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

“You had to redirect your focus to something else you could become equally obsessed and almost insane about,” Beard said in a phone interview. “For me, I couldn’t just shift from going through that kind of training and working that hard to just sitting on my couch. So I had to figure out my next passion and my next goal and challenges, and then push full steam ahead in that direction.”

Unsurprisingly, that passion propelled her back into the pool.

“My friend had a swim school in Tucson, Arizona, and my kids swam there,” Beard said. “Watching them go through that process and learn how to swim, and the whole facility she had, I was like, ‘OK, I know what I’m doing. I have to build a swim school, and this is going to be my next chapter: helping kids learn how to swim, to become water smart.’”

Former Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard, 39, talks with Reagan Randolph,6, and Clara Young, 5, during their swim lesson on Thursday, June 24, 2021 at Beard Swim Co. Beard now runs and teaches swim lessons for kids.  (Sylvia Jarrus / The Seattle Times)

Beard’s next chapter brought her to a predestined place. In July 1996, when she was that 14-year-old phenom, Beard told the Los Angeles Times: “When I grow up, I want to move to Washington, probably because I like the trees and the rain and the snow.”

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Predictably, Beard and her family settled in Gig Harbor, where she opened Beard Swim Co. in 2017. Her swim school operates out of two small pools in a 7,000-square-foot facility, where preteens are taught to swim with basic stroke technique.

The school’s mission is service and safety, rather than winning a race.

“It’s amazing,” Beard said. “We have parents that come up and say, ‘Thank you. Our children learning how to swim has completely changed our lives.’ Fear of water and the dangers of water are so strong, and so many people give into that fear, and then they just don’t want to challenge themselves to learn how to swim. Sometimes that then gets passed down to their children and so on and so on.

“To see these parents come in here who are personally scared of water and swimming, and to be able to break that cycle and have their kids learn how to swim, I think for them it’s just a huge relief. It’s an extra layer of safety with their kiddos when they’re going out into those environments around all those different bodies of water. It’s a cool gift to give back to our community and all the kiddos in here.”

Beard gave a gift to Gig Harbor, and got one back.

Because, despite a pandemic, Beard Swim Co. continues to grow.

“The first day we opened the doors and had people walking through the doors who wanted to have their kids learn to swim here, that was the coolest experience,” she said. “To see the response in the community, and now making it through being shut down for five to six months last year and we’re still here and we’re stronger than ever, it’s been a cool process to watch it really grow.

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“Now my complaints are, I don’t have enough water. I don’t have enough pool space, because I have too many people in the community who are trying to get in to swim, which is a great problem to have. But I want more water. I want all these kids to learn how to swim.”

The 39-year-old Beard has proven to be so much more than a former phenom. She’s a wife and a mother, an advocate and a role model, a community staple with a pair of swimming pools.

And, as the Summer Olympics approach, Beard went back to where it all began. Twenty-five years after a 92-pound piranha with a lucky teddy bear blazed to a pool record in Indianapolis, Beard attended the US Olympic swim trials in Omaha last week.

She supported the next generation of American swimmers.

And then she returned to Gig Harbor and got back to work.

“I definitely get a mixed bag of emotions, I guess you’d say,” Beard said. “Because the root and core of me is still extremely competitive. So when I watch the swimming and everything go down, there’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Gosh darn it, I wish I was still there.’ Because it’s so fun. It’s such a cool chapter of my life.

“And then there’s a part of me where I’m like, man, I don’t miss early morning wakeups and the amount of training I put in and all the things I had to sacrifice for it. I’m really content with where I am now.”