Anyone who has covered the Olympics or World Cup or, back in the day, Notre Dame football home games, understands there can be more cheering in the press box than is designed to occur. Some reporters have a hard time containing their patriotism, so to speak. Pat Forde is not one to engage in such behavior and understands very well this would not be an ideal look for someone with his remarkable resume: U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, APSE award winner, a national college sports writer for ESPN and Yahoo! and now among the most prominent writers at Sports Illustrated.
So on those occasions when Brooke Forde, his daughter, was scheduled to swim last month at the United States Olympic Trials, he set aside his press credential and took a seat in the stands at the Chi Health Center in Omaha with his wife, Tricia, and several family members and friends from Stanford, where Brooke became an NCAA champion and earned a degree in human biology. It all worked beautifully through a week that ended with Brooke earning a spot in the 4×200-meter relay at the Games of the XXXII Olympiad.
This methodology will not be available to Forde at the Tokyo Games, however, which he will cover for SI, his seventh Summer Olympics assignment dating back to 1992. Because he is credentialed as a journalist, he gets to watch his daughter compete as an Olympian in person. It’ll be the swimmers in the pool, reporters on press row and the crew putting the whole thing on TV. But it is almost certain those with press credentials will be required to remain in areas of the Olympic Aquatics Center designated for media.
“I have been thinking about it. It’s always been easy in other situations to literally just leave press row and go stand, and I could cheer then,” Forde told Sporting News. “But I don’t think that I’ll be allowed to do that. There’s not going to be anyone else in the venue, I don’t think. But they don’t want you yelling, anyway. Because they figure that might transmit disease.
“When they were still going to have fans, they were saying that: They were requesting that people not actually cheer. So if I open my mouth, I don’t know: Am I going to lose my credential? I don’t know! I haven’t crossed that bridge yet, and I’m not sure quite how to process it.”
There is a lot for Forde to consider about being one of very few parents of U.S. athletes in attendance at these Games.
The U.S. Olympic Committee designed a sort of grand virtual watch party for family members at Universal Orlando, where those who have the deepest connections to U.S. Olympians can experience the thrill of victory – or the agony of defeat – among others who understand. Each athlete has two guests he or she can invite to the event. Pat’s son Mitchell, who swam for Missouri, will attend with his fiance. Tricia will watch in Louisville, with family members and friends gathered at her sister’s home.
Pretty much every family member with an athlete in the Olympic pool will be somewhere stateside, save for Peter Andrew, father of 100-meter breaststroke ace Michael, who is one of eight assistant coaches on the USA Swimming staff. And, of course, Forde.
“I feel incredibly lucky,” Forde said, “but there also is a little bit of something akin to survivor’s guilt. It’s like: Why am I the one that gets to go? Especially, my wife, Tricia, she was a swimmer. She really got the kids in the pool first, and she was also the one that got up at 4:05 a.m. and made breakfast for them far more often than I did, and took them to 5 a.m. practice more often that I did. She put a lot of sweat equity into this, and she can’t go. And I feel really badly for her.
“I feel badly for Brooke’s brothers, who were swimmers their whole lives, and they can’t go. But then everybody else, too. Simone Biles’ family can’t go. And Katie Ledecky’s, and Caleb Dressel’s and all the track stars and Kevin Durant’s. It’s a little bit overwhelming to think I do get to go.
“I think: Hey, our profession does, occasionally, have its perks. But I never imagined it being something like this.”
Forde’s career has been built around his expertise on college basketball and football gained during his early years covering the Kentucky Wildcats for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, and later with those two sports as a focus as one of that paper’s two sports columnists. He moved to ESPN in 2004, then to Yahoo! seven years later. During that period, as Mitchell became a state champion and was recruited by Pat’s alma mater, as Clayton became an NCAA Championships qualifier at Georgia in 2019-20 and Brooke surpassed everyone with her times and achievements at Stanford, Pat began to excel covering Olympic swimming.
So when he was hired by Sports Illustrated in the fall of 2019, it was with the understanding he would be covering the Tokyo Olympics, with an emphasis on the swim competition. “I was a sure thing,” Forde said. “My daughter was not.”
No one knew then, of course, there would be substantial doubts regarding whether these Games would occur. The International Olympic Committee and Japan agreed last April, a month after the COVID1-9 pandemic was declared, to postpone the Games to this month. That had an impact on Brooke’s hope to make the U.S. team.
In July 2018, she swam a 4:35.09 in the 400-meter individual medley, her best individual race, at that point one of the 10 fastest times in American history. Nearly three years removed from that peak, she finished sixth in the trials at 4:38.69. Only the top two were guaranteed positions.
She still had a shot to make the team, though, if she could finish high enough in the 200-meter freestyle because of the relay event at that distance – and if the right combination of swimmers qualified for multiple events to keep the roster spot available. Brooke’s sixth-place in that race, a quarter-second faster than Gabby DeLoof, proved to be enough to make the team.
“The end result was just incredibly thrilling and gratifying, just to see the look on her face, how excited and happy she was. It kind of made everything worthwhile,” Forde said. “Look, everybody in the country was going through great difficulty in various forms and fashions. Hers was very acute because it was tied to a specific time in her life when she had a chance to try to fulfill a lifelong dream. For 15 months there, there was a lot of struggle and angst and difficulty that she was able to get through – not easily, but with the help of her coaches and peers and classmates at Stanford and a lot of other people.
“The actual Olympic Trials themselves, it was incredibly thrilling. Every day, I walked from the hotel to the pool thinking, ‘I can’t believe my kid is not just here, but has a chance.’ That was just this wonderful feeling. But then, the stress and the tension that went with it was considerable.”
One device that helped, believe it or not: Twitter. Forde was deluged with congratulations at his @ByPatForde account as Brooke swam the 400IM and then the 200 free, largely from colleagues in the sports journalism business, but also from among those who follow him.
When it was over, his essay about Brooke’s pursuit of that precious Olympic team spot was favorited 5,800 times and drew comments from college football analyst Mike Golic, NBC swimming commentator Dan Hicks and former NC State athletic director Debbie Yow.
“It means a lot. It was incredibly gratifying. It was very nice of so many people to reach out and say, ‘Hey, congratulations,’ ” Pat said. “I can’t count the number of writers I have bored in media work rooms with stories about my kids’ swimming or having them watch video on the laptop when there was swimming during the NCAA basketball championship. It’s just been very nice of people to respond like that.
“Sportswriters get a bad rap – sometimes deservedly – but there’s a lot of nice people in the profession. I certainly felt that in a big way.”
When Forde and I spoke, it was prior to his departure for Japan. He was traveling to Lexington, more than an hour from his home, for a COVID-19 test. Now, they certainly have such tests in Louisville, but the Japan consulate only recognizes one testing site in the state of Kentucky. Good news: He passed.
There still were hours of protocols to follow upon arrival in Tokyo. It’s always a challenge to travel to these major international events, but this obviously is a different level.
There is no press village for this Olympics, so Forde will stay in a hotel with the other staff members on assignment from SI. Whether he will get the chance to see Brooke in person is undetermined. There is supposed to be some sort of mixed zone for journalists to interview athletes. The athletes’ village will be “extremely locked down,” Forde said.
Pat will see Brooke, though, when she enters the pool deck Wednesday for the preliminary rounds of the 4×200 relay on the morning of July 28. When the race begins, he will chart the team’s splits, something he does routinely to help keep him calm and focused. He expects to ask some adjacent sportswriter friend to record video of the scene using a mobile phone.
Pat doesn’t know if Brooke will look for him in the audience before the event begins. Most often, she does not, preferring to focus on the race. He’ll wave at her, anyway.
This time, though, it might be worth it for Brooke to steal a glance.
Because it should be no trouble at all to locate her dad.