Beneath the Surface

Nov 3, 2021 | Mental Health, Wellness

This year, Brooke Forde, the four-time national champion and Stanford University swimmer, came home from the Olympic Games with a silver medal in the 200 Meter Freestyle relay. Brooke is wearing: Sequined dress, $35, and silver earrings, $8, at Sassy Fox. Hair and makeup by Mikhail Schulz for J Michael’s Spa & Salon. Photo assistant: William Kolb.

After navigating the challenges of a postponed Olympics, Lakeside swimmer turned athletic superstar Brooke Forde brought home a silver medal from Tokyo — but not in the event she had trained for most of her life. Like the glassy natural pool where she learned to swim, Brooke Forde has unexpected depths beneath that still surface.

On a post-Olympic high fueled by weeks of hype and happiness, Brooke Forde returned to Louisville this August triumphant — and remarkably understated. One of her first stops: Lakeside, the pool where she’d logged thousands of hours of practice from her preschool years through high school at Sacred Heart Academy.

“Growing up, Lakeside was a second home,” she explains. “It made me who I am as an athlete. We knew that the team produced great swimmers and that if we worked hard, we could achieve greatness too. I will never forget how excited I was when I was 10 years old and Caroline Burckle (bronze medalist) came back and signed autographs and let us try on her medal,” she says. “I always thought in the back of my mind that if I made it to the Olympics, I would come back and do the same thing.”

This year, the four-time national champion and Stanford University swimmer did indeed make it and came home with a silver medal in the 200 Meter Freestyle relay — not in the 400 Meter Individual Medley that was her original goal. But that’s just one surprising development in a year of twists, turns and roadblocks. After all, the path to the Olympics during a pandemic,was not what Brooke had planned for during her years of swimming, training and sacrifice. And it required even more mental stamina and resilience than even an elite athlete could anticipate.

That may be why, when asked what she is grateful for as part of our Gratitude issue, she immediately responded: “My incredible support system. My family, Lakeside, my teammates, friends, this community. When everything went wrong, when pools shut down, when I had nowhere to practice or train, I was never alone in it. Everyone was looking for solutions, offering to help, offering their pools, their homes, their gyms.”

The relationship is very much reciprocal. Brooke is so unaffected and accommodating to locals that, when we asked if she would mind slipping on a silver sequined gown and diving into the natural quarry pool at her former stomping ground, she said, “I’ll do whatever you want.”

Afterwards, she took another kind of plunge — giving frank answers about her journey to Tokyo and the aftermath of achieving a lifelong dream. See below.

“When everything went wrong, when pools shut down, when I had nowhere to practice or train, I was never alone in it,” Brooke says.

Can you tell those of us who will never know what it feels like to be an Olympic medalist?

“Sometimes I feel completely different and sometimes I feel like nothing at all has changed. I will be going about my normal life and completely forget that I have a silver medal, but then it hits me and I just stop and think, “Wow. That really happened and it wasn’t a dream!” Overall, I think it has changed how people see me more than how I see myself, but it is definitely something I will be proud of for the rest of my life.”

Does it change the baseline of your everyday mood — are you less anxious, more calm, more confident?

“I have felt more confident since coming back from Tokyo — both in swimming and life. The experience leading up to the Olympics taught me that I’m tough and proved that I can handle any challenges I will face in the future. I also feel much calmer. I didn’t realize until after it was over how exhausting it was to have a goal like that looming in front of me for so many years.”

How does achieving a lifelong goal affect your reality in good or unexpected ways?

“I have always been a goal-oriented person but now, for the first time ever, I don’t have any defined goals. It has been hard to feel motivated to set new goals after finally achieving such a huge one. I’m sure I will set new goals for myself as I pursue life after swimming, but I am giving myself some time to enjoy a more relaxed attitude.”

Your path to the Olympics was altered and complicated exponentially by the pandemic. Do you think that changed the meaning or the personal impact of your win?

“Absolutely. I think for every Olympian, the pandemic gave an entirely new meaning to our accomplishments at the games. The predominant feeling for me was gratitude that the games happened, that I got to take part in one of the first global gatherings since the start of the pandemic, and that all the struggle of training through the pandemic was made worth it by my success.

After recovering from COVID-19 (Brooke contracted the illness shortly after returning to Stanford University to train and study), you suffered a panic attack during a race that changed your Olympic plans and set you on a path toward the 200-meter freestyle instead of the 400-meter medley. Can you share what you were going through during that moment in the pool in San Antonio?

“That race in San Antonio was the culmination of a year-long struggle with my self-confidence, stress, and pressure that I was feeling. In the year prior, I had pushed aside a lot of signs that my mental health was struggling and during that race it finally came to a point that I couldn’t ignore. Instead of enjoying racing like I usually do, I was filled with fear and dread before my race and it got to a point where I didn’t think I could complete it. I got out and for about 4 weeks afterwards I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue to try to make the Olympics at all. Thankfully, I had a lot of support that helped me refocus and find the joy in racing again before trials.”

Is there too much pressure in world-class athletics?

“Yes. I think there is way more pressure on elite athletes than anyone realizes, and it is only just starting to be talked about. I think athletes need more support for their lives and interests outside of their sport so that they do not feel like their athletic performance defines them. For fans and spectators, it is important to remember how your comments may affect athletes. Admiring athletes while still recognizing that, in the end, sports don’t actually matter that much, would go a long way.”

How can you push yourself to compete and win at such high levels and still maintain your mental wellbeing?

“I rely on others — family, teammates, coaches — to help all of the time. I also just try to keep perspective and stay well-rounded in my interests. I have to remember all the small things that made me fall in love with swimming in the first place — hanging out with teammates, racing for fun, and feeling healthy and fit.”

Do you put too much pressure on yourself or just the right amount?

“I am definitely a perfectionist, as most elite athletes are. This goes for pretty much everything I do, but especially school and swimming. It’s hard to maintain with so much on my plate, but something that helps me is to be surrounded by people that I know will support me through success or failure. My dad sometimes encourages me to get “Bs” in school because he knows what a perfectionist I am and wants me to put less pressure on myself.”

While it sounds like you had Olympic aspirations for a very long time, you have often said that you worked toward the Olympics through a series of smaller goals. How was that helpful?

“While I like to set goals, I’ve never been one to talk about huge, unreasonable goals. Lots of swimmers would talk about their Olympic dreams for years beforehand, but I never wanted to. For a long time, I thought that meant that I wasn’t courageous enough to go after the goal. However, I realized that setting smaller goals was OK, and I think doing this actually helped me avoid burnout on the long road up to the games.”

What life lessons did you learn specifically through your path to the Olympics?

“Perseverance, asking for help when I need it and that achieving goals is still possible even if you get way off track in the process.”

What are your favorite memories from Tokyo?

“Sitting in the stands and cheering for teammates! The stands were empty so our teammates could hear and see us yelling on the side of the pool. We spent so long together that the USA Swimmers came to be family, and there is no feeling in the world like watching “family members” win an Olympic medal. I also loved all the little moments in training camp before the games. It was surreal to be surrounded by an entire team of Olympians all training with the same goal, but I had the best time learning from them and swimming alongside them.”

What are your next life goals?

“Currently finishing an MS in Epidemiology and Clinical Research with plans to work in global health in South America. I have applied for a position with the Peace Corps in Peru for next summer, which I am really excited about!”

P.S. Check out the rest of the November issue!

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