MARY BECK had never swum across a 25-yard pool, but the prize was too hard to ignore. She was four years old, and as she sat on the steps to the shallow end at the local pool, one of the summer lifeguards put a Reese's peanut butter cup, her favorite treat, on the other side. "I just remember seeing this orange wrapper at the end of the pool," Beck says. "I couldn't stop."
These days her performances get rewarded with medals—although a Reese still inspires her. Beck, a sophomore at Westlake High in Austin, trains with Randy Reese of Longhorn Aquatics, who has coached 60 Olympians, and with his help she set the national high school record in the 200 individual medley (1:57.41) and won six of her eight races this season. "Mary reminds me of Tracy Caulkins," says Reese, referring to a swimmer of his who was a triple gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics and won national titles in all four strokes. "A lot of people are good for three strokes. Very few have all four to the level Mary does. She can be one of the best."
She is already one of the most remarkable. Beck's success has come despite several physical challenges: She has scoliosis, a 16-degree spinal curvature (for which swimming is a recommended exercise), and last summer she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, an autoimmune disorder that often leaves her fatigued. (Before Beck began taking medication, "she'd get tired pumping a lotion bottle," says her mother, Martha.) Beck also suffers from Sensory Integration Dysfunction, in which sensory information such as noises or physical touches can feel exaggerated, causing discomfort or confusion. Mary's skin was so sensitive she didn't wear goggles until age 10. "She liked the water because it was quiet," says Martha, a former University of Minnesota swimmer. "It was her own private arena."
Still, Beck is like all other serious swimmers in the schedule she keeps. On many mornings her alarm sounds at 4:24; she is at the pool by 5. "I hate getting up that early," says Beck, who aims to swim at the 2008 Olympics. "But if that's what it takes...." Just like when she was four, she still won't stop.