By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, November 10, 2017
During her first practice in the Stanford pool this fall, first-year Cardinal student and athlete Brooke Forde looked around and experienced a slap-in-the-face realization.
She wasn’t in Kentucky anymore.
In the lanes next to her were Olympic and World Champions Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel, as well as several other top National and international swimmers.
And while she held her own, the fact that she was now among a team of elite swimmers was not lost on her.
It also opened her eyes to the fact that she’s pretty darn fast herself.
“I have been pretty surprised at my ability to train with even the fastest girls on our team,” said Forde, who hails from Louisville, Ken. “Obviously there are times when I simply can’t keep up (freestyle sets next to Katie for example), but my competitiveness keeps me motivated to chase after the faster girls.
“I am grateful every day for the fantastic level of competition here. It makes training a lot more fun, and the older girls are great about pushing me to be my best each practice. It does sometimes feel surreal to be in the middle of a set and realize that the next lane over contains a world record holder or Olympic gold medalist, but I feel so lucky to be on the same team as them.”
Coming from top level swimming genes herself (her mom swam collegiately for Northwestern University), in many ways, it was always just a matter of time before Forde would find herself competing among the sport’s elite.
She started swimming before she could walk, and joined her first year-round club, Triton Swim Club, before she was 7.
She switched to Lakeside Swim Club when she got older and decided to focus on swimming.
As the youngest of three siblings and the only girl, Forde said she did everything she could during those early days to emulate her older brothers – both of whom swam or swim currently for Division I programs.
“They have definitely been role models for me,” she said. “I always admired how my brother Mitchell was able to balance swimming and academics so well, and how extremely dedicated my brother Clayton is to the sport.”
In the early going, Forde actively played a host of sports in addition to swimming, including soccer, basketball, gymnastics, track and cross country and even football.
Once she started qualifying for more high-level meets, she decided to forego running for swimming full time.
One of those “big meets” she qualified for was 2016 Olympic Trials the summer before her senior year of high school.
And while she admits she didn’t perform at the level she wanted and expected to (largely because of a viral meningitis diagnosis and hospital stay two weeks before competition started that put her behind in her preparation), the meet proved a great learning experience that she carried through to this year’s Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships.
While the diagnosis proved a “huge blow” because she had been training nonstop for a year leading up to Trials and had been putting up fast times all season, she still ended up swimming fast enough to qualify for Junior Pan Pacific Championships, which gave her a good opportunity to race again that summer.
“Even though the swimming wasn’t perfect, the experience was very unique, and I had a lot to take away from it,” she said. “It was a good first exposure to the high stress of qualifying competitions, and it was my first time swimming in front of such a large audience.
“I also got great experience racing some big name swimmers (Maya DiRado, Caitlin Leverenz, Melanie Margalis, etc.). I remember the moment the enormity of the event hit me was in the ready room before 400m IM the first day. Maya came and sat next to me and started talking really casually about how we were going to be in the same heat. I tried to play it cool, but inside I was starting to panic as I processed whom I’d be racing.”
Following that meet, Forde said she worked with her club coach, Mike DeBoor, to refocus and work on improving her racing.
She also spent time improving and building her confidence in the water. Since arriving in Palo Alto, she said she feels like she’s fitting in with the team and Greg (Meehan’s) training style well – and getting past feeling ‘mediocre’ alongside the tremendous talent on her college team.
“After going to Olympic Trials and World Cup, I began feeling a lot more comfortable racing against the ‘big names’ in swimming,” said Forde, who qualified to swim at World University Games this summer based on her performance at Nationals. “There are still plenty of areas for improvement. I’m making lots of technical stroke changes and changes to my race strategy with my new coaches here at Stanford. I have also started lifting which will hopefully be an area to help me improve.
“Being surrounded by some of the smartest students and fastest swimmers in the country, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, but after these first few weeks I definitely feel more comfortable and assured of my place here.”
And now that she’s earned a spot on her first National Team – something that has been a goal of hers ever since she missed out on making the team in 2016 – and competed internationally at WUGs, Forde said she’s definitely looking ahead to 2020.
A dream she’s had since she first started swimming – making the U.S. Olympic team – seems more in reach than ever before, and she’s ready to challenge herself over the next few years to make it come true.
“The Olympics are something that has been on my radar since I started swimming,” she said. “It was a childhood dream, but there was definitely a phase when I stopped believing I would ever make it to that level. Like I said before, I don’t like to think too far into the future, but this past summer did reassure me that I can be competitive with other people who have competed at the Olympic level.”