Q.—What time do you go to bed?
Q.—What are your workouts like?
Her success has arrived almost without effort—or at least without inordinate effort. She isn't some high-intensity phenom, discovered at age two and shipped by overbearing parents to a faraway state to train under a guru in flip-flops. Her success has been a surprise, almost as if she were in one of those Disney movies in which a kid suddenly materializes to lead a stumbling team to the World Series.
Her father, Dan, is a hotel and restaurant management professor at Orange Coast College, and that's how Amanda ended up as a guest in his friend Herb Livsey's class. Her mother, Gayle, is an art teacher at an alternative high school in Irvine. The parents are divorced after 23 years of marriage, but they live within blocks of each other, share custody and are friendly. Their two older daughters, Leah, 21, and Taryn, 19, also swam when growing up, as part of an age-group program. Neither swims now.
"There wasn't exactly a swimming gene pool here," says Dan. "We weren't setting out to make champions. We just liked the benefits of the sport, the competition, the fact that it makes kids schedule their time, the friendships that it brings. Nothing really was predestined, although I will say that when Amanda was five years old, she did say she was going to swim in the Olympics. We all just smiled."
Until about 2½ years ago, Amanda was on the same ordinary course her sisters had followed. Swimming was just another activity. She played soccer. She raised an assortment of pets. In January 1994—when she joined the Novaquatics club full time after swimming recreationally through grammar school—she was a butterfly specialist. She hated the breaststroke.
As part of the Novaquatics' program, she was tested in all the strokes. When she butchered the breaststroke kick, assistant coach Brian Pajer, a breaststroke finalist at the 1992 U.S. Olympic trials, flinched. He hated to see someone treat his favorite stroke so badly. He worked on teaching Amanda the right technique. She learned. The result was a graph of improved performance that would make any money-market manager proud. Amanda had stumbled onto the perfect event.
The breaststroke somehow seems built for adolescent girls. Or vice versa. The U.S. record for the 100 and the 200 were set by Anita Nail in 1992, the summer she turned 16. At the Barcelona Olympics that year, Nail finished second in the 100 to 19-year-old Yelena Rudkovskaya of the Unified Team and third in the 200 behind winner Kyoko Iwasaki of Japan. Iwasaki was a surprise. Then again, she had just celebrated her 14th birthday.
"There are a lot of things that probably have worked together for Amanda," Dan says. "Her physiology is blessed for this event. She is slender, but her legs are powerful for the kick. Her ankles are very loose. The coaches all talk about that. She is mentally tough. She works very hard. She wants to improve. Plus, she is blessed by being in this program at Novaquatics, where they don't burn her up or burn her out. She'd get burned up in some high-powered program."
While Amanda was still in the recreational program, Novaquatics coach Dave Salo had talked with Dan and Gayle about their daughter's potential. Amanda and her parents decided she would join the full-time program—though Amanda cried at the idea of leaving soccer—to concentrate on swimming. During the school year she now had swim workouts five afternoons and three early mornings a week. "There were a number of people who were talking to us, saying we had to make the commitment," Dan says. "We would have been remiss, I think, if we hadn't followed up."