My Daughter's Long, Laborious Path to the Olympics

Brooke Forde overcame two COVID-19 scares, a mid-meet meltdown and a nerve-wracking Olympic Trials experience to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
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OMAHA — The Reticent Olympian was running toward me, face glowing, and that is a memory I will cherish until I have memories no more. That run, that face, that long embrace—pure joy bursting forth at last. Her guarded countenance dissolved in that cathartic and euphoric moment.

We were in the backstage area between the competition and warmdown pools in the CHI Health Center on Sunday night. The U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials were finishing up above, and the Stanford women’s team was gathering down below, so I used my media credential to gain access and steal that Swim Dad time. I jumped up and down and waved my hands until she saw me, about 40 feet away, and started running.

Here came freshly minted Olympian Brooke Forde. My 22-year-old daughter. As someone accustomed to writing about other people’s greatest athletic moments, including covering eight previous Olympics, I was living my own.

Brooke Forde (second from right) surrounded by her family: (L to R) grandma, oldest brother Mitchell, mom, older brother Clayton and dad.

Brooke Forde (second from right) surrounded by her family: (L to R) grandma, oldest brother Mitchell, mom, older brother Clayton and dad.

It was years in the making, a climb built on the archetypal elements of swimming success: grueling workloads; dedication to pre-dawn training; difficult teenage choices made to prioritize the pursuit of excellence. Living in Louisville and competing for Lakeside Swim Club, which has produced Olympic swimmers since 1940, helped. Coming from a family of swimmers also helped: Tricia, my wife, swam at Northwestern; Brooke's older brothers, Mitchell and Clayton, swam at Missouri and Georgia, respectively. We were all in it together. Brooke was the best of the bunch, possessing a toughness and perseverance passed down from her mother.

Her dedication, talent, peers and coaches elevated her everywhere a swimmer could go—state championships, a scholarship to powerhouse Stanford, NCAA championships, a place on the USA Swimming national team, major international meets. Everywhere except the very top. The Olympics.

But Brooke never once said out loud the Olympics was her goal, and actually resisted the premise of gearing her career toward that. Her interests and passions extended in many directions beyond the only swimming competition that matters to most people. She wanted to see how good she could be, and she wanted to be an Olympian. But she told her Stanford coaches she did not want to come to the pool every day thinking about making the Olympics.

It was better—safer emotionally—to keep that in the background. The task was too daunting, the chances too slim, to carry that weight daily. She feared disappointing people she knew who had put her on an Olympic pedestal years earlier. So it was compartmentalized for as long as possible, until the calendar demanded she confront it—a demand she almost rejected.

The closer she got to that five-ring summit, the harder it became. The doubts and the fear and the weight of expectation made the last year very difficult, with several jolts from the COVID-19 pandemic adding to the burden. And then there was this Olympic trials meet itself, always a cauldron of pressure but with a uniquely stressful twist just for her. The last week was the best and the worst, in varying doses.

How did she get there, in the very end? (And I do mean the very end. Stay with me.) By overcoming one trauma at a time.

Brooke Forde (third from left) poses with teammates, from left: Bowe Becker, Patrick Callan, Bella Sims, Catie Deloof, Hunter Armstrong and Jake Mitchell during their medal ceremony during the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials.

Brooke Forde (third from left) poses with teammates, from left: Bowe Becker, Patrick Callan, Bella Sims, Catie Deloof, Hunter Armstrong and Jake Mitchell during their medal ceremony during the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials.

March 2020

The world is shutting down, and Stanford is shutting down right along with it. Confusion reigns regarding where to go and how to train. At this point, the Tokyo Olympics are still on for July 2020, so the panic is real—time out of water is a very bad thing.

So one morning, I find myself driving to the Cincinnati airport to pick up Brooke and two of her teammates who are relocating to our home in Louisville, where at least one club is keeping its pool open. Clayton brings a teammate home from Georgia as well, and we joke about our newly formed Forde Elite Olympic Training Camp. It’s a stopgap remedy that ultimately lasts for only a few days.

What next? The owner of a local business that sells hot tubs and jacuzzis has a couple of endless pools and very generously offers to let our swimmers come use one in his show room, anytime, day or night. But after a test run, they discover the resistance isn’t enough for swimmers of this caliber—they can’t get a real workout.

Soon the Olympics are officially postponed to 2021, which alleviates some urgency. (It also sends Clayton into forced retirement; he doesn’t want to continue training for another year after finishing at Georgia.) Biking and running become the next cardio solution. The visiting swimmers can do that anywhere, so they head home after a couple of weeks. But nothing replaces swimming for swimmers, so more options are explored.

Tricia’s uncle has a condo in Fort Myers, Fla., with a six-lane, 25-meter pool, with lane lines. He extends a generous offer to stay there so Brooke can train. We pack up the car and start heading that way for a stay of undetermined length—then about an hour into the drive, concerns are raised that the condo complex will close the pool. We turn around and go home, waiting for clarity. The next day we’re assured the pool will remain open, so we head out again.

The setup is terrific—great pool, great weather. Another high-level swimmer who lives nearby is using the pool to train as well. But eventually, Tricia’s uncle is going to want to actually use his own condo. We stay two weeks, and then Brooke stays three more on her own to keep training until the outdoor pools are scheduled to open for the summer in Louisville.

After cobbling together a month of June workouts at various Louisville locations, Brooke gets clearance to return to Palo Alto and train with some of her Stanford teammates. An exhausting hunt for affordable housing ensues (campus is closed). The women find places in East Palo Alto that will serve them well as the wait for some semblance of normalcy continues. Masked up and battened down, there is no college swim season in the fall of 2020, no on-campus classes, no off-campus social scene, no life outside of laptops and practice. No fun.

January 2021

I’m sitting on my sportswriter friend Chuck Culpepper’s balcony in Miami, overlooking Biscayne Bay, enjoying a cocktail with him and my colleague Ross Dellenger. We are in town to cover the College Football Playoff championship game. It is a gorgeous evening. Until the phone rings.

Brooke is in tears, dismayed and bewildered. She has tested positive for COVID-19—the only Stanford swimmer to get the virus—despite taking all precautions. Stanford athletes had just moved back into the dorms, and the virus moved quickly through a handful of them. She is sent into quarantine and, to make matters worse, so are several teammates who tested negative but were contact traced.

Finally back into something resembling a training rhythm, quarantine ends that. After a few days of extreme fatigue and brain fog, she tries staying in shape by doing calisthenics in her room. The clock is ticking toward Tokyo—not to mention the skeleton college season that has been scheduled for February and March—and this is an unwelcome disruption. But at least she had COVID-19 out of the way, we thought.

March 5

We are in our living room in Louisville, watching the TYR Pro Swim Series meet in San Antonio. It is the first elite, all-comers swim competition in the U.S. in a year, a key measuring stick for where the top athletes stand three months before Olympic trials. And Brooke Forde just disappeared from the screen.

Halfway through finals of her best event, the 400-meter individual medley, she’s swimming poorly and then she’s just … gone. “She stopped,” I said to Tricia. “She got out.” This is rare, and runs completely counter to Brooke’s determined nature.

We were watching our daughter melt down in real time. We felt absolutely terrible that we hadn’t fully appreciated how badly she felt, and hadn’t figured out how to help her.

The burden of the 400 IM—an extremely demanding race that requires extremely demanding training—had been building for months. She wasn’t training to her expectations, especially with trials looming. Thursdays were IM practice days at Stanford, and she’d come to dread them.

The breaking point came in the middle of that race in San Antonio. She was struggling through the backstroke leg when a panic attack set in. She feared she might drown. So she stopped and got out, which the broadcasters kindly overlooked as they called the race.

Greg Meehan, Stanford’s tremendous coach, called to say Brooke was O.K. Later, she called to say she was O.K. But the 400 IM—an event in which she ranked in the top 10 in American history, an event that put her in the World Championships in 2019—had grown into a monster in her mind. We talked several times in the ensuing days, and she said she was done with the event.

Here is a dirty swimming secret: This sort of thing has happened to a lot of elite competitors. The unseen burden many of them take to the starting block can weigh heavily. The training is so hard and the rewards so intermittent, performance pressure can be crippling. In that, Brooke was not alone. Other swimmers in similar predicaments, you are not alone.

With the help of a Stanford sports psychologist and her coaches and teammates, she somehow got it back together for the NCAA championships in Greensboro, N.C., two weeks later and won the 400 IM. It was a remarkable display of fortitude and a wonderful moment, following Stanford greats Maya DiRado and Ella Eastin as recent national champions in that event. But it also was in the short-course pool (25 yards), not the big pool (50 meters), and the college competition was not as stout as the pros she would face at Olympic Trials. The monster had not been slain.

Still emotionally wobbly, she flew home from the NCAAs for three days instead of directly back to campus. She hadn’t been home since early July and needed some time to decompress and think through how she would approach Olympic trials—if she approached it at all.

There was no more compartmentalizing it now, no more tucking it away behind other objectives. The biggest meet of her life was staring her straight in the face. I told her it took courage to fail, to take on a task that is likely to end in disappointment—only two Americans can go to the Olympics in each event, which means the vast majority of those who are elite enough to even be invited to attempt it will not get there.

“Well, I guess I don’t have the courage,” she said.

In the end, a compromise of sorts: “I’ll train for the 200 freestyle for trials, but I don’t want to train for the 400 IM anymore.”

By the time she got back to school, she’d softened that stance and agreed to at least try to keep going in the event. Stanford competed at another TYR Pro meet in Mission Viejo, Calif., and we were quite literally white-knuckle-watching the 400 IM and hoping she could bring herself to both start and finish it. She did, recording a good time in finals. For her parents, that was as anxious as any swim of her life.

She was back on the horse, so to speak, but the horse wasn’t exactly galloping into Olympic trials. While external expectations were high, within the family they were not.

May 28

A text from Greg Meehan just before 9 a.m. ET, 6 a.m. in California: Brooke has tested positive for COVID-19. Again. Minutes later, here comes another distraught phone call from her.

She is stunned—she’s fully vaccinated and already had the virus that same calendar year. She is devastated—16 days out of Olympic Trials, Stanford wants to send her into two-week quarantine. She might as well not even go to Omaha after being out of the water for that long, that close to her first event. It’s a cataclysmic development.

Ten terrible hours ensue, in which Stanford resists giving her a second COVID-19 test and we resist having her report to quarantine. Medical and legal advice are gathered, in preparation for a fight. She gets a rapid antigen test that is negative. Finally, Stanford re-tests her original sample and finds it was a false positive.

Crisis averted. But at the expense of a week’s worth of emotional energy.

June 13

It is, at long last, go time. Five years and a lifetime in the making, the immensely pressurized Olympic trials are starting. The 400 IM is the first day. The Reticent Olympian is here.

Today is also Stanford graduation day. While her senior classmates are going through commencement back on The Farm, Brooke is trying to make the Olympic team. She had her picture taken on the pool deck in Omaha in cap and gown with teammates and friends Katie Ledecky and Katie Drabot, a lovely ode to their parallel tracks of achievement. The pride in earning a Stanford degree is immense, but also a secondary emotion on this day.

Never at her best in morning preliminaries, Brooke labors through the race and barely qualifies for finals, grabbing the last of eight spots. Having watched her in this race countless times, we could see the struggle. Normally a super-strong finisher, she wallows through the freestyle leg as if physically spent.

But she at least made finals, invoking the old swimming saying: if you have a lane, you have a chance. Maybe she could summon a 400 IM from 2018 or ’19, when she was one of the two fastest in America.

Ultimately, she couldn’t. She finished sixth, but her time was her best in two years and the winners went extremely fast. A tip of the cap to them, and a feeling of some closure for Brooke—given where she was in March, getting out in the middle of a race and declaring she’d never swim the event again, this was a triumph few people recognized. She left that race feeling justifiably proud of herself.

June 15

Released from the hold of the 400 IM, Brooke is ready to roll in the 200 free. Seeded 15th, she moves way up from that in prelims. That night in the semifinals, she swims a beautifully controlled race, recording a lifetime-best time and qualifying fifth for finals the following night.

This is especially exciting because the 200 free is a relay event, which means the top six (not just the top two) are chosen to the Olympic team for the 800 freestyle relay—provided the total team headcount of 26 swimmers is not exceeded. If she can hold her place through one more race, she should make it to Tokyo.

Suddenly, in an event that was not her best but when her mind was at its calmest, opportunity presented itself. Still, the competition is fierce, led by the legendary Ledecky and three-time Olympian Allison Schmitt. The Kentucky Derby is called the most exciting two minutes in sports, but this 200-meter race of roughly the same duration would easily trump that for me.

June 16

In the CHI Health Center stands that night, we have our cheering section: myself, Tricia, Mitchell, my mother-in-law, brother, and sister-in-law. I’ve analyzed the race all day, over and over—she could be last after the first 50, then hopefully steadily building from there. The first four spots seem pretty secure: Ledecky, Schmitt, Paige Madden of Virginia and Katie McLaughlin, a California grad. After that, it’s a brawl for the final two relay spots. We’re all nervous as hell.

The race unfolds pretty close to my expectation: Brooke is last through the first 100, but swimming faster than in the semifinals. She edges up to sixth heading into the last 50, but it is desperately close—and being in lane two, it’s hard to compare exactly where she stands with the competitors on the far side in lanes seven and eight.

When 16-year-old Bella Sims surges past her in lane one, despair sets in—this was not an expected development. But Brooke keeps battling and finishes strong, eclipsing her previous lifetime best of the night before by .21 seconds. All our heads immediately wheel upward to see the scoreboard, and there is the magic number next to her name: 6. She’s got a relay spot … we think.

I throw my heat sheet skyward, no idea where it landed, and embrace Mitchell and Tricia. In the section below us, NBC has a camera on the Ledecky family for the race. As they celebrate in the foreground, you can see part of our celebration in the background. In the pool, Ledecky swims across one lane to embrace Brooke, and the smile on my girl’s face is another one for the memory banks.

Brooke Forde embraces Katie Ledecky after competing in the Women's 200m freestyle final of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials.

Brooke Forde embraces Katie Ledecky after competing in the Women's 200m freestyle final of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials.

Sometime later—who knows how long—we meet Brooke outside the doors to the arena. This is where emotions are raw and revealed all week, where the families find their swimmers after each night. Parents consoling sobbing athletes after disappointing results. Breaststroker Cody Miller, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, signing dozens of autographs after missing the 2021 team and perhaps seeing his career end at age 29. I feel pangs for all those who tried so hard and didn’t make it, for those who dared greatly while finishing short of where they wanted.

And here comes Brooke, cautiously walking into our ecstatic embrace.

“I don’t know how happy to be,” she says, prudently raising the caution flag. Her Olympic spot is far from official—a lot of people already on the team need to qualify in additional events to get the U.S. headcount down to 26. As the sixth-place relay swimmer, she would be the first to go if the qualifiers exceed 26.

Still, everyone is assuring us the numbers will work out fine. It’s never not worked out, and even with the addition of a new event (the women’s mile), this should be in the bag. We choose to celebrate that night, while Brooke more wisely chooses to remain guarded.

June 20

Brooke elects not to watch the race that will decide her Olympic fate. It’s too much. Tricia and I contemplate doing the same, but ultimately couldn’t resist. The women’s 50 freestyle, the final event of the trials, will either knock Brooke off the bubble or make her an Olympian.

The previous 96 hours have been agonizing. With her fate out of her control, stress has consumed us all. We have analyzed every race and done all the math about what needs to happen. We have cheered the results that got her closer to Tokyo and lamented the results that kept it from certainty. We are not eating well. We are not sleeping well. The hours between sessions drag on with aching slowness.

The night before was a low point. Brooke went into those finals needing three good results to make the team, and on paper it looked probable. But in the end we got two out of three, with world record-holding backstroker Regan Smith's being upset and finishing third in the 200 back. After hoping for release, we remained imprisoned for a final day and one last race.

Catching up with her that Saturday night in the hotel, the Reticent Olympian clearly had no more reticence about her desire to make the team. She wanted it, but couldn’t yet have it and might never get it—a cruel premise hanging over her after a year of going through so much. She was suffering, emotionally shot, now forced to wait 24 more hours.

The odds were still in her favor, with five of the eight 50 free finalists already on the team, including top two seeds Abbey Weitzeil and Torri Huske. But the 50 is a crapshoot of a sprint in which anything can happen.

In the Stanford camp, conflicting emotions seemed unavoidable. Superstar Simone Manuel was trying to make the team after shockingly missing in the 100 free. Everyone wanted to see Simone do it, but if she and another current non-roster swimmer finished 1–2, it would knock out Brooke, Manuel’s teammate.

Brooke sat with her Stanford teammates but kept her eyes off the pool. Mercifully, it’s a short race, 24 seconds and change. When Weitzeil got a good start and rolled to a short lead, everything looked good. When Manuel surged alongside her, that was O.K. as long as she didn’t have company from outside lanes. When the two came to the wall in unison—Manuel first by a hundredth over Weitzeil—the result was perfect. Two Stanford swimmers made the team in one flourish. (Thank you, Abbey Weitzeil, for doing your part.)

We were going crazy in the stands. Brooke was being mobbed by her teammates. She got a long hug from Meehan, then joined the rest of the Stanford contingent in embracing Manuel.

It was done. A lifetime in the making, a year from hell, an exhilarating few days, an excruciating final wait. And then a sweet moment behind the scenes with her very proud father. Reticent no more, joyful only.

At the end of the night, the last members of the team were announced. She was handed a microphone and looked into a camera that beamed her smiling face onto the big screen in the arena, whereupon she said eight great words: “I’m Brooke Forde, and I’m a Tokyo Olympian.”

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