My fascination grew with each chapter I read. With every page turn, frankly, I reached a new level of incredulousness. Sure, I had read sports memoirs from star athletes depicting not-so-great moments behind the glory. But there was something that particularly hit home for me in the recently published “In the Water, They Can’t See You Cry,” by Amanda Beard. As she told her story it became increasingly obvious — Amanda Beard had a deep-rooted and long term issue with her self image and her confidence.
Wait a minute. Amanda Beard? Amanda Beard thought she wasn’t pretty? Amanda Beard was self-conscious of her body, her personality, her achievements? Amanda Beard? As I read the book, I began to wonder: If Amanda Beard had problems with low self-esteem, the rest of us are doomed.
All right. I admit to a case of hyperbole in my last statement, but the notion ran through my mind. After all, this is an accomplished Olympic swimmer who seemed confident in competition, confident in posing for men’s magazines, confident in making swimming her career, which, by the way, is an incredibly difficult feat. She had gone to three Olympics, won seven Olympic medals, and set swimming records.
Never would I have assumed that Amanda Beard’s journey was touched by perfection. But neither would I have suspected she could achieve such traditional measures of success while struggling to hold it together emotionally. Her memoir offers a compelling look at how her insecurities and inability to communicate her inner reality led to all kinds of self-destructive behavior. Beard battled eating disorders, one of the first ways in which young women can feel a sense of control. She entered into relationships with men which proved to be toxic and draining rather than supportive and uplifting. She began cutting herself as a way to cope with anger and stress.
Amanda Beard found her way out. She’s married with a son and training to attempt to make her fourth Olympic team. She still battles her insecurities and doubts, but understands now they don’t make her weak. They actually make her strong.
“When earlier in my life people tried to put me in the position of role model, I refused it. How could I hold myself up as someone to follow when secretly I felt like a mess?”
“This is the crux of it; despite how I look in a bathing suit or how fast I swim, I’m nothing more than human, with emotions and insecurities that I continue to have but can now deal with. The greatest realization for me is that I have earned more respect because of the real-life story behind my image and accomplishments. If being a role model means I don’t have to be perfect, then I am all for it.”
Part of me wished Beard had talked a bit more about her actual swimming and training. It astounded me with all this emotional upheaval, and the destructive physical ways she dealt with it, she could continue her career as an elite athlete. But her real life story — the one with the drug episodes with her then-boyfriend in South Africa, the starving herself for photo shoots, the doubts about her beauty, the purging and the cutting — is far more compelling than reading about her workout routine.
If Amanda Beard can suffer through self image problems, than are the rest of us doomed? Not exactly. It opens up a new space to look at our perceptions — of athletes, of media images, of ourselves. For years, Amanda Beard was presented airbrushed (literally and figuratively). There is only perfection with Photoshop. And that perfection is rather boring. The journey, no matter how messy, is where our life happens. To miss it, or ignore it, is to miss out on our life.