By Alexis Chiu
November 08, 2010 12:00 PM

As a young swimming phenom, Amanda Beard appeared to have it all: four Olympic medals by age 18, a modeling career and lucrative endorsements. Looking back, Beard could add to the list: world-class acting skills. “I did a good job of putting on a front: ‘Life is perfect. Everything’s fun,’ ” says Beard, 29. “When I’d go home, it was just darkness.”

For more than a decade Beard hid a self-loathing which led to bulimia and, when her emotional pain became too much to bear, a habit of cutting herself. “I was like this lost little girl trying to figure out this depression, anger, craziness.” Now, says Beard, she has come clean to those close to her, left destructive behaviors behind and found that baring her soul-and her scars-is therapeutic. “You can barely see them,” the married mom says, running a finger over the faint marks on her tanned left forearm. “They’ve faded nicely.”

Beard dates her struggles to 1996, when she went to her first Olympics at age 14. Only three years after she began seriously competing, the Irvine, Calif., native won a gold and two silver medals while still toting a teddy bear around the Olympic Village in Atlanta. Suddenly, “it was like, ‘Okay, I have to be an adult now.’ ” Though her parents, both teachers, never pushed her to compete, family members recall her perfectionist streak. “She was under pressure to meet high standards she set for herself,” says sister Leah Silberman, 35, also a teacher. “Amanda’s a competitor and wants to win.”

Over the next year Beard, who had been 5’2″and 100 lbs. in Atlanta, grew six inches and gained about 25 lbs. “I remember hearing people call me ‘fat and washed up,’ ” she says. Her self-image plummeted. She earned a bronze medal in Sydney, then returned to the University of Arizona, where she would subsist on foods like fat-free cheese and broccoli, then binge on cookies and purge in her dorm bathroom. “I wanted to be skinny and perfect.” Somehow she kept training, even as her empty stomach would cramp during workouts. She eventually confided in her coach, but even the team physician’s warning that she was harming her esophagus didn’t stop her. Like Beard’s family, her peers “knew nothing about it,” says 2000 Olympic teammate Dara Torres. “She just hid it.”

On bad days, or after a fight with her boyfriend, Beard would retreat to her bathroom to scratch in frustration at her skin with her nails. One day five years ago she picked up an eyebrow razor and ran it over her forearm. “It would be completely bloody; then [after] it looked like a little scratch,” she says. After that, cutting herself became her go-to release in times of despair. “I couldn’t even feel pain.”

She used makeup to cover scabs, and had excuses if asked about the marks. Says her sister Leah: “She did a lot of sports; it wasn’t out of the ordinary if she had scratches. I would’ve liked if she had said something so I could have tried to help her. But it seems it was a journey she had to take on her own.”

In September 2005, Beard met photographer Sacha Brown at a Speedo ad shoot. They began dating and, after they moved in together, says Beard, “I told him what was going on.” Recalls Brown, 35: “For me, it wasn’t that she was cutting herself, but, ‘What’s the real issue?’ ” Beard calls his concern for her “eye-opening. He cared enough to help me.” He urged her to see a therapist, and soon Beard began taking anti-depressants. “It’s not like I went to therapy and-poof!-better,” says Beard. She got her eating under control by the next year and hasn’t cut herself since 2008. Though she is off medication, she says, “even today I have my issues. The key is saying, ‘Let’s enjoy this-life is short.’ ”

After three medals at the 2004 Olympics, another turning point came when Beard failed to qualify for the finals in Beijing in 2008. “I left the pool crying. If that had happened in 2000 or 2004, I probably would have spiraled into craziness.” Instead, “I was like, ‘Let’s go see the Great Wall. Moving on!’ ”

She then took a break from swimming and in September 2009 she and Brown welcomed son Blaise. As a mom, she says, “things you think are so important don’t even matter anymore.” In March she returned to training six days a week, and in August at national championships she swam the 200-meter breaststroke just two seconds shy of her 2:22 record. Beard hopes to be on the U.S. team in London in 2012-but she isn’t obsessing. “If I can’t make practice because I’m hanging out with my son, I don’t make practice,” she says, smiling as the toddler swings a plastic light saber. “My focus is on Blaise. I want to be a role model for him.”