“Is Pat Forde in here?”
I was indeed there—there being the Tokyo Aquatics Center, specifically the final press conference of the Olympic swimming competition. Caeleb Dressel was the speaker. I was in the media contingent, preparing to write this story about him. I was not prepared to be called out from the dais.
Dressel and three American teammates had won the men’s medley relay in spectacular fashion, setting a world record from an outside lane and keeping intact the United States’ streak of never losing that event in the Olympics. It was the perfect way to end a week of wild ups and a few downs for the Americans. It was Dressel’s fifth gold medal, finalizing his stature as the biggest global star in his sport.
And in response to a question about team bonding, Dressel had an anecdote to share that he wanted me to hear—bringing the sweetly surreal duality of my media/parent role here to its conclusion. His anecdote involved my daughter, Brooke—Dressel’s U.S. swimming teammate—and a failed strategy.
“We [some of the men’s swimmers] taught some of the girls on the team how to play poker,” Dressel explained. “This is one of my highlights and shows some of the uniqueness of USA Swimming. … We were, I guess, the coaches, and I’ve got to come clean. I had Brooke go in on king-6, which is my favorite hand, and I said, 'Hey, shove all-in.' And she busted. So I apologize.
“Moments like that, it’s so much fun. And they all clapped for each other on every hand, it’s the craziest thing. But moments like that, and moments at [training] camp, are where we become Team USA. … The stupid little moments—it’s not the big moments that are caught on camera. It’s the moments you don’t see.”
This was the second time this summer that the phrase “little moments” made me realize—they actually are the big moments. At the end of June, friend Scott Van Pelt from ESPN texted me a picture of his young daughter’s swim meet. “Road game. Nervous. Won her heat. She was beaming. … Just enjoying the little moments.”
No such thing, SVP. The little moments are the DNA of everything profound—every great relationship, every great accomplishment, everything that lasts and matters and lingers in our memories as we age. Specific to this story, Brooke’s Olympic experience sits at the top of an athletic pyramid built upon little moments.
The neighborhood pool races where winning a heat ribbon was a triumph. The jump up with her older brothers Mitchell and Clayton to the year-round team, and the excitement of overnight trips from home in Louisville to exotic locations like Indianapolis and Nashville. The advancement to two-a-day practices and 4:20 a.m. wake-ups, where breakfast with teammates was the reward before heading off to school. Earning a black national team swim cap as a member of the Lakeside Seahawks club team—a true stamp of arrival. Then the bigger meets all over the country, and eventually the chance to represent the United States internationally in Singapore, Europe, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. A scholarship to Stanford, and the unmatched fun and camaraderie of a college team environment. All of the doubt and stress that went into the 16-month final leg to making the Olympic team, which melted away in an unforgettable experience in Omaha in June.
Now this. All of this. A place on Team USA, an anchor spot for the 800-meter freestyle relay preliminaries, a silver medal. All of a sudden, the little brown-eyed girl who used to sit on my lap in the stands at age-group meets is taking pictures with Kevin Durant and playing poker with Caeleb Dressel.
(Despite busting that king-6 hand, Brooke gives the male star of these Olympics credit for being a good poker coach. She says she went on to win more than she lost in matches with her teammates. No money changed hands, though in one game nuts were used as currency—cashews, almonds and macadamias.)
As Brooke reached the top of the pyramid, the reflections on all the building that got her to this point kept coming for me. The overwhelming realization that this was actually happening—we are in Tokyo for the Olympics, and I’m just about the only noncoach-parent on the planet with this opportunity—had to be processed in increments. One of the sayings I’ve often used with Brooke when she felt she was facing an impossible task—academically or athletically—was this: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
So it was for me, seeing something dreamed about for so many years take tangible shape in front of me. Pictures from the Olympic Village—wow, this is real. The sight of her on the Olympic pool deck—are you kidding me? That’s really my kid? We are acquaintances with the parents of Will Smith, the Los Angeles Dodgers catcher and a Louisville homeboy, and his mom articulated it well when we saw her over Fourth of July weekend: “I still don’t believe it. I’ll be driving on the Watterson Expressway and suddenly it hits me: Will won the World Series.”
This is my ninth Olympics, so I know what they’re supposed to look and feel like. It’s not this, with quiet venues and limited movement and such extreme caution when it comes to human interaction. I felt bad for what the athletes were missing: the fellowship with their peers from around the world, the immersion in a melting pot of cultures and sports, the feeling of all being in this extraordinary event of a lifetime together.
Despite what was not present, there was no squelching the athletes’ excitement. That was palpable from the opening ceremony onward. After coming so close to not having these Games happen, every athlete was so happy to be here and acutely appreciative of the opportunity.
My situation was more complicated. With a child on the team and friendships with many of the athletes and their parents, I would have loved to slip into the Team Dad role—but the lockdown prohibited that, so there would be no orange slices or juice boxes or food deliveries from me to them. Also, I had to work roughly 12–16 hours a day, factoring in bus time to and from Tokyo Aquatics Center. Most awkward of all, I had to attempt to objectively (and at times critically) cover the U.S. swimmers and their coaches while trying not to put my daughter in a difficult position.
This was by far the best assignment of my life. It also was by far the strangest assignment of my life.
The day before they lit the torch, I got my first chance to see Brooke in person. I was at the aquatic venue for a media session with the U.S. coaches; she was there for practice. We got 5–10 minutes to talk in a back hallway. I wanted to hug her, of course, but safe social distancing had been the team mantra for a month—don’t mess it up now, on the cusp of the Games. At least I was there, in her presence for the first time since Omaha for Olympic trials in mid-June; I had empathy for all the athlete parents who couldn’t get closer than FaceTime to their children.
She looked great, sounded upbeat—all systems go for her event six days away. When the competition began on July 24, you could see how fired up the American team was to swim—they were easily the loudest cheering team in the venue. From my vantage point in the press tribune on the other side of the pool, it was a joy to see Brooke as engaged as anyone in the U.S. team section. Americans storming to six medals on the first full day of swimming may have happened without that team spirit, but I’d like to think there was some correlation.
Three days out from her event, there was a hiccup. (Because there always is a hiccup with this child.) She swam a time trial for her coach, Greg Meehan, and her time was very slow, well off what she recorded in Omaha to make the team. Being the relay anchor created some stress; now this added to it. Despite the knowledge that the U.S. did not have to be spectacular to make the eight-team relay final, everyone wanted to swim fast while representing their country in the Olympics.
But that was the last time any worry was voiced. When I saw her on the pool deck, she waved at me in the stands—something she was not prone to do before this trip. Text exchanges were humorous and stress-free. She seemed ready for her moment, Wednesday night in Japan and Wednesday morning in Louisville.
Back home, the support and excitement were heartwarming. Her club team put up a banner at the pool. Her high school put up a banner. Local media all ran stories. And a breakfast watch party was organized for family and about 50 people with ties to our original neighborhood team. All she had to do was step up and swim against the world’s best.
One of the restorative, stress-releasing rituals I’ve undertaken before my kids’ biggest swims is to find some quiet alone time to consciously express appreciation for the moment. When Brooke and her brother Clayton were competing at the U.S. Nationals in Irvine, Calif., in 2018—when both had the best 400-meter individual medleys of their life—the quiet time came after I dropped my wife and mother-in-law off at the front gate, then parked and walked around the facility to the pool. Every afternoon I had the same conscious thought, “What a gift to be here. How fortunate we are.”
In Omaha earlier this summer, that time was the 20-minute walk from the hotel to the arena. It was harder here to find any solitude, however brief. But before the night session started I walked around the side of the venue and found the setting sun shining on my face. Eyes closed. Inhale. Exhale. Gratitude activated. I was about to watch my daughter swim in the Olympics.
Relieved of work duty for the night and able to watch as a father, I asked my friend and colleague Michael Rosenberg to get video of the race on his phone. I watched Brooke and her relay teammates be introduced, and there was another wave of realization—this is going to happen, right in front of me.
Before the start, I did in fact cheer in the press box—I’ve yelled, “Go, Brookie!” before every race she’s ever swum, and I wasn’t going to stop at the Olympics. Fortunately nobody objected.
The race unfolded pretty much perfectly. Bella Sims swam a solid leadoff leg, then Paige Madden put the U.S. in front, then Katie McLaughlin increased the lead. When Brooke went in, she had a solid lead over the Chinese. When she finished, exactly one minute and 57 seconds later—the fastest time of her life—the lead was maintained and the American relay had advanced to the finals as the No. 2 seed. She had put in the work, and she performed when called upon.
What happened next was my moment of the Olympics. After touching the wall, being congratulated by her relay mates and checking the scoreboard, Brooke looked up and found me in the stands. The look on her face wasn’t clearly visible from where I stood in the arena, but the slow-motion TV replay made my heart grow three sizes that day. Her countenance radiated joy, satisfaction and relief.
And with that, I was running. I had to get down seven flights of stairs to get to the media mixed zone, where I could meet up with Brooke for my favorite postrace interview of my career. McLaughlin, a California Golden Bear, threw some shade at my Stanford swimming shirt (same one I wore when Brooke made the Olympic team, this was no time to mess with the mojo). I’m not sure I actually even asked her anything, but it was a moment to cherish.
The next morning, it was up to her teammates to bring it home. Allison Schmitt subbed in for Sims, and Katie Ledecky subbed in for Brooke—two of the most decorated swimmers in U.S. history. What followed was one of the best races in Olympic history.
With China blazing in lane 3 and Australia following in lane 4, the United States was playing catch-up in lane 5. Ledecky gave a furious chase in the anchor leg, splitting the fastest 200 of anyone in the race by a wide margin. She passed the Aussies and nearly caught the Chinese. All I knew at that point was that my kid had an Olympic medal; later on I figured out that all three teams broke the world record.
Brooke Forde, Olympian, was now Brooke Forde, silver medalist. Like, for real. All the work, all the so-called small moments, had yielded this moment too big to dare believe it could happen. She sent a picture later of her wearing Ledecky’s borrowed silver (she wouldn’t get hers until the end of the meet), which brought it home even more.
Congratulations poured in via text, email and other methods. It was gratifying to see all the excitement from people who knew her. Next thing I know, she’s on the Today show with five of her teammates and Michael Phelps. I got to be together with Brooke one more time in Japan, when we met for a CBS interview in the Main Press Center (no hugging, and masks on). Other than that, it was just a few more waves from across the venue.
On the final day, Caeleb Dressel dropped his poker anecdote—the last of the surreal moments in Tokyo for me as a parent-journalist. I checked the story with my closest source on the team. She confirmed.
The little moments. They have added up to something grand beyond measure.
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