LOS ANGELES - The last time the world looked at Amanda Beard she was winning her first individual Olympic gold medal at the Athens Games. There's a lot more of the 25-year-old swimmer on view in the July issue of Playboy, where a topless Beard is on the cover billed as "the world's sexiest athlete nude."
Inside, she takes off her clothes in eight pictures certain to create a stir among rivals and young girls who consider her a role model.
Beard is unapologetic about what she calls her latest "outside adventure." After all, she's modeled in men's magazines before, notably a spread in FHM that left little to the imagination.
"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I really felt excited and motivated to do it," she told The Associated Press on Thursday, sipping coffee in the sunny backyard of her Venice home.
"I'm kind of used to people not necessarily agreeing with everything that I do and that's totally fine. This doesn't change my personality or who I am. It's just a business decision, a career decision."
Beard, who previously dated NASCAR driver Carl Edwards, posed in the prime of her career. She's aiming to qualify for her fourth Olympics next year in Beijing, and is the Olympic champion and former world-record holder in the 200-meter breaststroke.
It may be months before Beard is competing in meets and can gauge the reaction of her fellow swimmers to her magazine spread. She won't begin serious training for the Olympics until later this year, when she plans to give up riding motorcycles, snowboarding and vacations.
"It would only feel awkward if they make comments to me about it," she said. "We'll see how that one goes."
Beard first came to attention at the 1996 Games, where as a scrawny 14-year-old she toted her teddy bear to the starting blocks and won two silver medals. She medaled at the 2000 Games, too.
"There's a lot of debate about whether it demeans women and female athletes," said Dave Salo, Beard's coach at Trojan Swim Club. "If nothing else, it celebrates the athleticism and takes away from the model-type women."
Beard is aware of the criticism she could get from the mothers of young swimmers and girls. But she points out those are some of the same people who had her autograph FHM when she was in that magazine.
"I've had so many women approach me and say, 'We love seeing a good, healthy body being portrayed as beauty,"' she said. "I'm healthy. I work out like crazy. I'm not one of those people that's partying wee into the hours. This, I think, is a better role model than most."
Within her own family, Beard was surprised at the reaction.
"My grandma was like, 'Oh, she doesn't need to do that, but it's her choice,"' she said, adding that her divorced parents backed her, too.
"I told my dad that I'd take like black tape and kind of mark out certain things, so he doesn't feel awkward looking at it. He's like, 'Could ya?"'
Beard said her agent, Evan Morgenstein, had previously turned down Playboy because she wasn't ready. He points out that "she is not the victim."
Beard said she was swayed this time because the magazine allowed her to select the photographer (a woman), the photos that were used and the settings. Morgenstein declined to comment on how much Beard was paid.
"The thing I respect most about her is she's always been willing to take the risk and let the chips fall where they may," he said. "She's more of a role model today because she's willing to stand up and take the heat."
Beard is trying to position herself for a career away from the pool, and she sees the magazine spread as a way to attract nonswimming fans.
She envisions developing her own business empire, similar to former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kathy Ireland's line of apparel and home furnishings.
She and Morgenstein have hired a licensing agency to help develop products, like fragrances, apparel and home products to be part of a signature Amanda Beard collection. She's also sorting through TV hosting offers and a movie script.
"You have to remember, I'm still just a swimmer," she said. "I am living a great lifestyle and I'm making good money, but I'm not a basketball player. These deals are not $40 million deals."