Salo, a former USC assistant, is a low-pressure coach in a high-pressure sport. He is a proponent of high-speed, race-quality training rather than high-mileage training. He is not a believer in heavyweight training, especially for teenage girls. "I tell all the kids in our program that they're training for the Olympic trials," Salo says. "That is the goal. Maybe none of them will make it, maybe one or two or three, but that is the goal."
Beard followed Salo's instructions, hitting whatever standards he suggested. From a time of 1:33 in the 100 in January 1994, when she started serious training, she dropped to 1:15 by that August. By last summer, she had shaved off another five seconds. This March she swam her 1:08.36 to win the Olympic trials in Indianapolis in a breeze. She clutched a teddy bear at the press conference afterward.
How fast was Beard's progress? She skipped the whole junior nationals scene, going straight to the senior nationals. How fast? A year and a half after starting to learn the correct way to do the breaststroke, she was swimming the 100 and the 200 at the Pan Pacific championships in Atlanta for the national team and finishing third in both. How fast? She broke two of Olympic champion Tracy Caulkins's meet records at an event in Southern California last year and then said she had never heard of Tracy Caulkins.
It has been, for a ninth-grader, a jolt. She has traveled to faraway cities without her parents. She has had microphones stuck in front of her face and been asked her opinions on various subjects. When she returned from the trials as the first Novaquatics qualifier for the U.S. Olympic team since 1984, a pep rally was held in her honor at Irvine High. Like a star, she was driven to the rally in a 1964 Bentley.
"It's all great, but it's scary, too," Gayle says. "You have to put your trust in a lot of people, some of whom you really don't know very well. Ninth grade, in itself, is a tough time for a kid, going to high school for the first time. She's struggled sometimes with the workload. Ninth grade is a time when you really don't want to be singled out, to be different.
"I worry a lot. I worry about jealousy, somebody saying something mean and hurting Amanda's feelings. I worry about people saying something about her physically that she hears. You're so insecure. Suppose she has a zit or something, and people are talking about that? All of this is exciting, but some days I just want to cover her up in her bed and protect her."
Her events in Atlanta will be on the second and fourth days of the Games. Her big competition will come from Heyns, Samantha Riley of Australia and any number of surprise candidates from China, Japan and/or Eastern Europe. The races should be two of the best in the Olympics. "We're treating this as going to a big party," says Salo in his low-impact way. "There just happens to be a swim meet in the first few days."
Q.—Do you ever feel any pressure? Do you worry about not living up to expectations?
Q.—Are there places you feel you have to improve? What are they?
Q.—Do you swim for the high school team? What is that like? Do you give the other kids a head start, just to make the race fair?