A Front-Row Seat with the Sportswriters Who Sat There

Sit down with host Todd Jones and other sportswriters who knew the greatest athletes and coaches, and experienced first-hand some of the biggest sports moments in the past 50 years. They’ll share stories behind the stories -- some they’ve only told to each other.

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Bonnie Ford: Viewing humans through a sports prism

Bonnie Ford: Viewing humans through a sports prism

For Bonnie Ford, being a sportswriter is about more than covering games and knowing statistics.

She carved out a stellar career by acting on what she felt was a journalistic obligation: Digging into complicated social, cultural and financial topics related to sports. Bonnie did extensive work on doping scandals, especially in cycling, which made her an expert on the Tour de France and its superstar, Lance Armstrong. “I’m grateful that I had such a compelling figure for so much of my career to cover,” she says. Bonnie also discusses how she wrote about issues common to all athletes such as mental health. She shares how Olympic swimmer Allison Schmitt used her platform to talk about depression. She also tells us about covering the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, about profiling Art Modell as he moved the Browns from Cleveland, and what it was like at Wrigley Field after Steve Bartman tried to catch a foul ball.

Ford retired as ESPN senior writer in December 2020 after 13 years of specializing in long-form features and investigative journalism. She was an enterprise and Olympics reporter who wrote extensively – breaking news, analysis, and commentary – about performance-enhancing drugs in sports, specifically the Armstrong case. She conducted an exclusive interview with him in 2008 when he announced his return to the sport of cycling. Besides Armstrong, she covered the Chris Froome doping case and had interviewed many anti-doping whistleblowers such as Floyd Landis.

Bonnie says her biggest passion over the last 10 years was writing about endurance sports, strong women’s voices, and the rights, safety, mental health and working conditions of all athletes. She has covered international events, including the Tour de France 14 times, men’s and women’s soccer World Cups, men’s and women’s tennis majors and the world marathon majors, as well as major U.S. sporting events, including MLB playoffs and World Series, NBA and NFL playoffs, NCAA championships, the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup. She also produced audio storytelling with a couple of 30 for 30 documentaries – “Out of the Woods” and “Heavy Medals” – at ESPN, which she joined in 2007 after previously working as a freelance writer.

Before working at ESPN, Bonnie was a sports feature writer at The Chicago Tribune (1996-2004), a sports feature writer for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland (1994-96), a metro reporter at The Detroit News (1987-94), a metro reporter at The Ann Arbor News (1981-87) and assistant sports director at WUOM-FM in Ann Arbor, Mich. She says her interest in reporting on the topic of doping in sports sprang out of her interest in legal issues and experiences from covering criminal justice as a cityside reporter for 13 years in Michigan. She wrote about courts, the police, and politics.

Bonnie was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford and a Fellow at the University of Maryland Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. She grew up in the New York City area, spent her high school years in Paris, France before earning a bachelor’s degree in 1979 from Oberlin College in Ohio.

Bonnie is married to former Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Bob Ford, who retired in 2020 after 32 years at that paper. Stories from early in her career were written under her maiden name, Bonnie DeSimone.

Follow her on Twitter: @Bonnie_D_Ford

Bonnie Ford edited transcript

Todd Jones

Bonnie, welcome to Pressbox Access. I'm so happy that you've joined us.

Bonnie Ford

I am thrilled, Todd. It's great to hear your voice.

Todd Jones

It's been a while, right? It's been a while. You know what it's quite an honor to say right off the top. You're half of a dynamic duo in one household, married to the great Bob Ford, the former Philadelphia Inquire writer for more than 30 years. What a power duo. I mean, a dynamic duo, Bonnie Thanks and Bob. So it's fantastic to have you.

Bonnie Ford

Oh, thanks, Todd. We have worked across the hallway from each other for a lot of years, and somehow the marriage has lasted. And in all seriousness, what we do is so weird as you know, that it's actually been awesome to have a partner who is in the business doesn't do exactly the same thing as I do, but completely understands what it's like. We did cover some big events together, and I just can't say enough. Like, how supportive he's been and everything that I've been able to do in the last 1015 years is definitely he's been a part of.

Todd Jones

Yeah, well, Bob, I'm hoping to have him on the show at some point. Just going to tell him now he's going to have to wait for Bonnie first and tell him that I do accept payola. It doesn't have to be currency. It can be beer. But at some point we'll catch up with Bob. But today, Bonnie, it's all about you. And rightfully so. Thanks again for your time. I've admired your writing and your investigative reporting for ESPN for many, many years. You left ESPN in December of 2020 after 15 years, I believe before that, the Chicago Tribune, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Todd Jones

I always respect the fact that you had the courage to take on tough subjects. And there's a lot of different sports riders. There's beat reporters, there's columnists, there's people who do takeouts what kind of led you down the path of your own career, of digging into subjects like doping and mental health, complicated social, cultural and financial issues. What was that path all about?

Bonnie Ford

Sheer madness. Maybe we all come into this because we love sports. But I always have seen sports as just another prism to view humans through. And I spent a good part of my career not being a sports writer covering politics and education and criminal justice and general assignment, you name it. But my heart was always in sport. And so when I went back to sports writing in my 30s, I really wanted to use the skills and the knowledge and the sort of world view I had in sports.

Bonnie Ford

Now that sounds really lofty. I also loved having a ringside seat to some big events and doing daily stuff. But the older and more experienced I got, the more I felt an obligation to take on complicated things. And I'm just a restless person by nature. And I thrived on a variety of assignments and doing beat coverage and event coverage and sidebars features and investigative sometimes all at the same time in a given year. That suited me for whatever reason.

Todd Jones

Well, I think it takes an empathetic mind, a world view. And I mean, let's face it, when I ask you about this. When you were back in College at Oberlin in the late 70s, you wanted to be a poet at one time.

Bonnie Ford

That is true. That is true. I had the luxury of arriving at a small Liberal arts school in Ohio with absolutely no life plan.

Todd Jones

Well, I'm still looking for one. Go ahead.

Bonnie Ford

By the way, Oberlin was a fantastic place for me, no regrets whatsoever. But, yeah, I knew I wanted to write. That's all I knew, and there was no journalism Department at Oberlin, and so I chose a major that I was interested in, which was political science and just kind of floated along until the summer between my sophomore and junior year. We weren't that far away from Watergate, and I was sort of taking stock of Where am I? What am I doing? Where am I headed? A lot of my friends were applying to law school.

Bonnie Ford

I knew I didn't want to do that. And so I thought, Well, okay, I write fast. I was famed for my ability to churn out term papers quickly, and I'm really interested in current events and journalism at that point in time was really we were all, I think, in awe of what The Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein had done, and it felt like a calling. It felt like a way to be involved. And so I arrived back at Oberlin with this fresh aspiration and promptly was asked to work at the ten Watt campus radio station.

Bonnie Ford

We don't even have stations that small anymore. I don't think it just extended to the campus limits.

Todd Jones

You could only get it on Tuesday nights if it wasn't raining.

Bonnie Ford

Seriously, it was a great place to start because you could make mistakes. And there weren't that many people who were going to hear you. And I did everything. I Djed. I was a sound engineer for radio theater, and I did some public affair stuff, and I also did sports.

Todd Jones

Out of College. You were started in radio in Ann Arbor, too, right? I mean, you started out. Well, first of all, you were working at a pizza joint.

Bonnie Ford

Well, you did do your homework.

Todd Jones

And then you ended up in a radio station in Ann Arbor. And then that led to covering news in Ann Arbor and then on to the Detroit News. And like you mentioned, you did courts, cops, politics. You did all kinds of new stuff for 13 years.

Bonnie Ford

So I think that what was really appealing to me was number one, just the interviewing and learning how to interview people in all walks of life in all situations. And number two, try to make topics that weren't necessarily very sexy or interesting but did affect people's lives. How do you make those come alive? And Todd, I am one of the very few sports writers. I don't want to Pat myself on the back or toot my Horn, but go ahead. All right. You can actually covered the sewer board.

Bonnie Ford

Okay. I covered an entity in Ipslandi, Michigan called the Yipslani Community Utilities Authority, known as Yucca. And if you can cover a sewer board meeting and make it relevant in the paper the next day, you can do anything that's true.

Todd Jones

They don't have any quote sheets at the sewer board meeting.

Bonnie Ford

Right.

Todd Jones

But in all seriousness, when you think about it covering courts, covering politics all those years and then in Detroit, too, it just gave you a different perspective, right. Because when you went back into sports full time as a sports feature writer in Cleveland at the Plain Dealer in 1094, you were bringing in a much different perspective than a typical person who came up and did nothing but sports. Right.

Bonnie Ford

Well, there were two good things, Todd. One is that little did we know at the time but being comfortable in a courthouse or city hall or any kind of documents, research, understanding a little bit about business, understanding a little bit about governance, all of those things we're about to really come into play in sports writing, right? It wasn't just the toy Department anymore. We were expected to cover issues like Stadium financing or a player or a front office person charged with a crime or any number of things where I suddenly found myself in demand for the skills that I had acquired without even really thinking about it.

Bonnie Ford

I was really comfortable in my own skin. At that point, I had been in so many different situations with so many different kinds of reporting challenges that walking into a locker room for the first time. While it wasn't particularly pleasant, I felt like I knew what I was doing, whatever happened wasn't going to bother me. And so in that way, I think I had a leg up, just sort of confidence wise in not being intimidated by any kind of setting.

Todd Jones

You literally had a foundation. I mean, you had not only the skills, but the experiences that those skills then transferred well into situations that maybe were more unique to sports. How did it infuse your writing when you started writing sports features for the plane dealer in Chicago Tribune?

Bonnie Ford

Well, I say that I was comfortable in my own skin and had some confidence. I was a little bit insecure about walking into communities like Cleveland and Chicago where you better know your stuff. Like the fans are so knowledgeable to some extent. I'll use the word skeptical of somebody who comes in from another market, another place and is writing about their sports, their teams. I think that made me even more careful about my reporting and even more apt to sort of go out and make those 15 extra phone calls to figure something out.

Bonnie Ford

And I got thrown really directly into the frying pan by Roy Hewitt, the late sports editor who hired me in Cleveland. The first thing he asked me to do was to report a long form feature on the one year anniversary of the boating accident where the two Indian pitchers were killed, and I had the shakes. I said to him, I don't think I'm up to this. This was such a huge thing for this city. And he said, That's exactly why I want you to do it.

Bonnie Ford

Go do it. He wanted fresh eyes. He just wanted a different, I guess, a different perspective and outside perspective. So I flew all over the country, went out to Oregon to interview Steve Olan's family and Florida to interview Tim Cruz's family. And one of the really most rewarding stories I've ever done. Because if there's one lesson I've learned through all the reporting that I've done both on Cityside and in sports, it's that people want to talk about tough things. People often want to talk. They want to talk about what it's like to struggle, what it's like to lose a loved one.

Bonnie Ford

We're not therapists, we're journalists. But I think a lot of us. And I know I did when I was a younger reporter. You talk yourself out of these opportunities because they're not going to want to talk about that. Or I'm not equipped to talk about this subject.

Bonnie Ford

If you arrive with curiosity, genuine curiosity and compassion, those two things will take you a really long way in a challenging interview.

Bonnie Ford

On the other end of the spectrum, I was also asked by the same sports editor to do the exit piece, so to speak, on Art Model. The former Browns owner.

Todd Jones

Boy Roy was just giving you a bunch of easy ones. Wouldn't he.

Bonnie Ford

Know? Because where you're from and what you've done, the atmosphere in Cleveland and the attitude toward Art Model after he decided to move the Browns to Baltimore was hostile in the extreme. And when Roy asked me to do this story again, I said to him, this is two years later, like, I'm not the person to do this. I'm not from here. He's like, Shut up. Go do it. So I asked for a couple of weeks to read every single clip in the Plain Dealer Library going back to the early 60s.

Todd Jones

You sound like me, Bonnie.

Bonnie Ford

You went back a long way. And then I made a legal pad list that had 75 names on it of people I wanted to call. Now I'll have you guess how many of them agreed to talk to me about Art model in late 1995.

Todd Jones

Over under out of 75. I would say a dozen.

Bonnie Ford

Four, four. Okay. Yeah. I reached a lot of people, including Pete Rosell, the former Commissioner, who very politely declined. No one wanted to touch this guy. It was too hot.

Todd Jones

It was Chernobyl. You needed a hazard suit to go in there.

Bonnie Ford

Right. So I then learned quickly the art of writing a story when not only the main source won't talk to you, but nobody who ever knew him will talk to you.

Todd Jones

What do you remember about that story?

Bonnie Ford

It was a writing job. It was like writing an orbit for someone who is still alive at that point. And so I tried to be respectful and fair and include a lot of different viewpoints and also write the crap out of it. And I hope I succeeded.

Todd Jones

Did Modell talk to you?

Bonnie Ford

No. He wasn't talking to anybody at that point. There were lawsuits.

Todd Jones

Did he ever talk to you later?

Bonnie Ford

No.

Todd Jones

What are your thoughts about model? When you look back on it, that whole situation now years removed.

Bonnie Ford

Oh, gosh. He's an example of one of those old fashioned sports owners who I think, really had their ego and identity wrapped up in the team almost to a fault. It was a very emotional thing with him. And when he didn't get what he wanted in terms of support, what he viewed as the proper financial support for the team and the Stadium. And he saw, let's not forget, the Indians were getting all kinds of love had just gotten a new Stadium. Yeah.

Todd Jones

Rock and Roll Hall Fame had just come in.

Bonnie Ford

Right. And he just decided to leverage that and leave. And I think what surprised me the most when I went back and looked at all of those old mouldering clips in the library, he was really a pillar of the community for a long time, very involved in charitable stuff. And this was another reason he felt so maligned when he didn't get what he wanted.

Todd Jones

Yeah, he felt wronged. And obviously the city felt wronged and just a horrible moment. Not a moment years. And it took a long time, I think, for the city to heal.

Todd Jones

So, yeah, the emotions of that are something that really stick with you as a writer. And I think that's the type of moment that you experienced through your career. I think you mentioned to me, Holy shit moments. Are there some Holy shit moments that leap the mind when you take a look at all the years that you did these things.

Bonnie Ford

There are, and I actually divide them into several different categories.

Todd Jones

Oh, we got levels of Holy shit. I love it. This is awesome.

Bonnie Ford

So there's the moments that you see in competition that are just crazy turnarounds miracles, shocking developments on the field of play. Then there are the Holy shit moments on deadline, which I know you're familiar with. Sometimes those two things intersect.

Todd Jones

Oh, yes.

Bonnie Ford

And then there's the third kind of Holy shit moment, which is someone an athlete or a figure that you really know. Well, that you have a good relationship with or that you've simply written about a lot over the years does something spectacular. And at least in my case, I then turn this fantastic blast of pressure on myself like, oh, my God, I have to do the best job in the world on this because I know this person's story better than anybody else. But I'll go back to the first because the absolute far and away winner of Holy Shit Moments for me was the Bartman game, the 2003 playoffs between the Cubs and Marlons and the game at Wrigley Field that I don't have to explain the circumstances, I don't think to most of your listeners.

Todd Jones

But Steve Bartman, let's say the name Steve Bartman.

Bonnie Ford

A fan who was sitting in the left field corner, a reach for a foul ball became a scene that will live in infamy. But the actual Holy shit moment for me was because it unfolded over the course of an inning. Obviously, it wasn't just one moment.

Todd Jones

Oh, yeah, there was some cubness, there air and some other things happened.

Bonnie Ford

Besides Bartman, I was sitting next to my then colleague, Rick Morrissey in the auxiliary press box, which was outdoors, tabletop seating. And in that inning, after various things unraveled, what most people forget is that there were two outs in the inning, and it looked like the Cubs might get out of this. And the crowd was you could hear the sort of pleading nature of the crowd noise. And you get very attuned to that as a sports writer, too, because often you're looking at your computer and you're listening to the crowd and you hear different sort of tones in the crowd that make you sit up.

Todd Jones

Yes, the crowd can tell you if you have to delete a paragraph.

Bonnie Ford

Exactly. So earlier in the inning, when the Bartman actual sort of interaction took place, I heard the crowd noise get sort of more ominous and ugly. And then the inning progressed. And finally we get to that two out point and the crowd is loud. And Rick and I in our computers have the running copy saying that the Cubs are going to the World Series for the first time since 1945, and Mike Mordecai hits a bases loaded double and

Bonnie Ford

The crowd noise went from near deafening to silent so quickly that Rick and I sitting in the upper deck could hear what the Marlins were saying in the dugout. Wow. It was like a switch was thrown. Wow. And we looked at each other and Rick said to me, I guess we got to rewrite.

Todd Jones

Yeah, that's right. To find elite, to find elite, to find elite.

Bonnie Ford

Man. So that was a moment. And we also knew at least I did. And I think most of my colleagues felt the same thing. You just knew they were going to lose the next game. You don't recover from something like that. Yeah.

Todd Jones

It was like the Red Sox after the Mookie Wilson ground or the Buckner. And the next night, you just knew it. You just knew it.

Bonnie Ford

So that in terms of competitive moments and challenges on deadline definitely takes the cake. I would say that in the other sort of more positive direction, a couple of athletes who I covered and knew very well, doing something incredibly unexpected in the moment. Those moments are really wonderful when you execute them.

Todd Jones

Give us one who is one of the athletes.

Bonnie Ford

Site two, if you don't mind. One, is there's a swimmer Olympic swimmer named Tyler Clary, who in the Michael Phelps Ryan Lochte era. He was always the third guy. He's constantly finishing second and third. And he was one of the best swimmers in the world. And no one had ever heard of him sort of figuratively because he happened to be in this era of these two dominant, very dominant swimmers. Yeah.

Todd Jones

Big shadow. Right.

Bonnie Ford

One of the sort of signature traits of my career is that I love going where everybody else isn't. And so I decided to go do a feature on Tyler Clary and spent a few days with him, had a blast. He took me offroad trucking and we went to a Formula One race together because he's a big car guy wrote this big feature. He then at the Olympic trials, gets sick and doesn't make the cut in his best event, which is the 400 Im. But he qualifies in two other events, including the 200 backstroke.

Bonnie Ford

And on the day in London, 2012, he wins the gold medal in the 200 backstroke. And I can't really explain what it was like to watch that happen and then have that again, turn that blast of pressure on myself. Like, okay, you went and did the story on this guy. Now it's your responsibility to put this in context and make everybody understand why this is so special, right?

Todd Jones

I had an old friend, Jack Brennan, a former sports writer and then PR guy in the NFL. Jack used to say when he was a sports writer, this would be a great job if you didn't have to write.

Bonnie Ford

Yeah, I hate writing. Absolutely hate it.

Bonnie Ford

The other athlete I was going to mention is Desiree Linden, who won the Boston Marathon three years ago in 2018. 1st woman American woman to win it in 33 years in the worst weather conditions, maybe in history, with just sideways rain and Gale force winds and 38 degrees at the start.

Bonnie Ford

And Desresrey had always been in the mix and close and finished second one year and to see her across the finish line, someone I had covered and knew so well for ten years, but it was eleven in the morning, eleven or twelve in the morning. And that was another problem. It was like, oh, my God, I have a lot of time, and that's almost worse than being on deadline. But again, I think when I look back and I know some of the guys you've talked to and women have said they never go back and reread their stories.

[00:29:19.350] - Bonnie Ford

I totally get that. I don't do it very often, but I've looked back on some of those stories where I put that pressure on myself. And I feel like you might never be an A plus by your own standards, but you're usually an A minus or B plus, at least.

Todd Jones

Well, Bonnie, you mentioned the Boston Marathon, and I wanted to make sure to ask you about a Holy shit moment. And that's the tragic day in 2013, when the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon. Where were you in the afternoon when that tragedy hit?

Bonnie Ford

I was in the press work room, which is always a ballroom at the Fairmont Copley Hotel. And as luck would have it, it was my very first Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon was always an event that I always had wanted to cover. I had covered endurance sports and major marathons and Olympic marathons for many years, but somehow just never made it to Boston, and it was on my bucket list.

Bonnie Ford

I was typing away. I was working on my analysis column. Whatever about Shellane Flanagan, who had been sort of the favorite daughter and the elites had finished hours before we had the press conference and so on and so forth. And I had my Bose noise canceling headphones on, listening to interviews and typing. And out of the corner of my eye, I saw a commotion in the press room, but I didn't think anything of it because there's often commotions in press rooms. And a couple of minutes later, I just sort of sensed that something was off, and I took my headphones off, and I turned to the reporter next to me, who I still to this day don't understand why this person didn't tap me on the shoulder and tell me something was going on.

Bonnie Ford

And I said something happening, and she said, yeah, we're locked down. There were two explosions on Boyston Street, so at that point, we were not allowed to leave the building. And so I had two reactions. One was abject horror because we were watching on the big screens that had previously been showing the race. We were seeing scenes of just absolute horrific scenes. And the second thing was, how can I do my job if I'm locked in?

Todd Jones

That's right. How did you do your job? What did you do?

Bonnie Ford

Well, first, I tried to get out and they wouldn't let me out. And there were a couple of reporters and photographers who were savvy enough and knew the room well enough and who did get out. I'll never know how I would have reacted. It's an open question. I know some of my friends and family were sort of glad that I didn't go out on the street and see anything, even if I could have gotten close to the scene, which is another question. They shut it down pretty quickly.

Bonnie Ford

But the Fairmont is the headquarters, the race headquarters. And so all of the elite athletes and their families and their coaches and were inside the building with us. And so I just went out and started interviewing people about their reactions. Shellane Flanagan, who I mentioned before was incredibly gracious that day, spoke to me Med Cuffleski, who, as luck would have it going to win the following year, spoke to me, Joan Benoit. There were just a lot of people who were very thoughtful again in their shock and sorrow and spoke to me.

Bonnie Ford

And I decided that the best thing to do was simply to write a personal essay about what it was like to be there but not be there. It led me down another reporting path later on, which really is meaningful to me. I was a bit consumed with the fact that I hadn't been able to get out on the street and report that day. And so that led me to want to do a story about some of the first responders, which led me to the athletic trainers who were on the finish line, which led me to really one of the most meaningful pieces I've ever written, which is about a young woman who helped save a life that day.

Bonnie Ford

Yeah.

Todd Jones

Devin Wang, it's an amazing story, and I don't mean that just to be because you're a guest, but it's an amazing story of long form journalism. Devin Wang. She was a student trainer like 20 years old, and she was pushing the wheelchair of the athlete whose legs were literally blown off at the knee. And, well, you tell us about it. Tell us about the story and what it means to you now, having written that story.

Bonnie Ford

Devin was a student at Boston University studying to be an athletic trainer. And if you go back and watch the footage of that day, which Unfortunately, I had to do a lot to write the story. You see three reactions in the moment, you see people running away, you see people who are frozen and you see people running toward it. And to this day, I will never be able to get my head around the courage of all of the people who ran toward danger. But in particular, these undergraduate students who were there to spot dehydrated runners or tape an ankle or give somebody a nausea pill and for them to run toward this war zone, not really understanding what they were running toward, but knowing that they needed to run toward it incredible.

Bonnie Ford

And Devon, as I came to find out, was an athlete. She was a figure skater who competed in a discipline called synchronized skating. And I do think that her athlete's reflexes and mindset helped her in that moment, but obviously it was also very traumatizing. And there's a very famous picture photograph taken by Charlie Krupa of The Associated Press that shows the athlete the double amputee with Devin and an EMT and a gentleman named Carlos Arodondo who helped in that moment. And the picture went worldwide instantly.

Bonnie Ford

Devin was retraumatised by the picture, and it took her a long time to sort of come to grips with what she had experienced and the process of building trust with her understanding that this was going to she was going to identify herself for the first time in my story. That was very rewarding. And almost ten years later, now I'm happy to report that we're still in touch.

Todd Jones

I was going to ask you that. Do you stay in touch with someone like Evan? That's great.

Bonnie Ford

Todd. I know that you would think of a few off the top of your head. There's people that you don't leave behind when you finish a story. Oh, yeah.

Todd Jones

I call them like little birds. They're always kind of in the nest around you.

Bonnie Ford

There's no way that there's been a lot of discussion of journalistic objectivity in recent years, but when you participate in that kind of an intimate exchange with someone, at least for me, they're always going to be on my mind. And in some cases, I'm going to maintain a relationship. Some people don't want that, right. That's the end of it.

Todd Jones

You respect whatever is best for that person.

Bonnie Ford

Right. Right. But Devin is different. And she graduated from a physician's assistant program. It turns out that her experience really convinced her that she wanted to be in the health care profession and she'll be awesome at it.

Todd Jones

Yeah.

Bonnie Ford

So I'm really proud to know her.

Todd Jones

That's great to hear that's. Really great to hear the Boston Marathon. Obviously, that story became a world story. And even in normal years, the marathon is an international event. People from all over the world come to participate. And international sports has been such a part of your career. Bonnie, I mean, you've always kind of gravitated towards that. I think you spent, like, your high school years living in Paris, France, right. Your family was in France. Is there something about the international sport that has just always drawn you?

Bonnie Ford

I did spend my high school years in France, and so I became acquainted with that thing we call soccer.

Todd Jones

Oh, yeah. That's football.

Bonnie Ford

And that thing that we call cycling, the Tour de France when I was a kid backpacking, I remember going with my friends who are very excited that we were going to go see a stage of the Tour de France, see an air quotes. I say, because we hyped up to the top of this mountain and spent the night and got the next morning. And I really didn't know what I was about to see. Well, what I was about to see was a bunch of guys going by really fast.

[00:40:08.210] - Bonnie Ford

And then I turned to my friends and said, that's it that's why we hiked up this mountain. But in truth, I was pretty enchanted by the whole thing and sort of following this narrative that unfolds over three weeks. But the main thing that living over there gave me as a very impressionable teenager was seeing the passion that people had for those sports, which was similar to but different than our passion in the United States for professional sports.

Bonnie Ford

I had the travel bug from a really young age, and I wanted that I wanted to go cover sports in other places and see what that was like and grew up as an Olympics fan and wanted to cover the Olympics. So I got to do eight of them. I got to do a number of men's and women's World Cups and the Tour de France, and many.

Todd Jones

Let me ask you about the Tour de France. All right. So you see that as a teenager, how many did you cover, like, 14, I believe, 1414.

Bonnie Ford

Most of them start to finish, some of them partial.

Todd Jones

Now this sounds like a very basic question, but it's asked as a reporter, how do you cover the Tour de France? If somebody said to me, go cover the Tour de France, I wouldn't even know where to start. I mean, three weeks across country. What kind of logistical nightmare was that to cover? How did you do it?

Bonnie Ford

Let's call it a logistical challenge.

Todd Jones

So you go to challenge. I go to nightmare.

Bonnie Ford

It's a nightmare some days, but not always. You do. You work at the start and the finish, and you go to the start. You do interviews, you get in your car. If you have authorization, you can drive ahead of the race. Some very few cars are allowed in race, or you can go around to the finish, which most of us did because it's fun to drive the course and it's fun to see the fans. It's very stressful because you're trying not to hit people and you're trying to get where you're going a lot of times, just for work sake.

Bonnie Ford

You would want to get to the finish, start writing, and then the finish happens and you go out and do some more interviews and write your piece and then drive oftentimes quite a distance to where you were staying, because sometimes you'd stay in the next start town. So I had the advantage of speaking the language. A lot of those tours I chose to do by myself because it's so stressful the driving and everything that even though it's hard to do by yourself, you can often end up wanting to murder anyone who's in the car with you.

Todd Jones

Especially certain people come to mind. I won't name names, I'm just saying. And I'm sure there are some people who want to murder me if I was in the car with them. But I get you.

Bonnie Ford

So there are days. Every single reporter I know who's covered the Tour de France has at least one day per tour where they say, I'm never doing this again. This is way too much, but it gets in your system, and I really feel privileged to have done it as much as I did. And I missed my pals from that press Corps because we are bonded.

Todd Jones

Oh, I bet all those years, three weeks for an event all these years, 14 of them covered them. You do form a bond with a group of people who are dealing with the same challenges. Now you mentioned us seeing it as a teenager, and it's one thing to see the Tour on television like I have, or many of us have, but to see it in person to see that mountain that those guys are going up or down, can you give some perspective of what it's like the challenge that those guys have on the bike going up and down, especially the mountains.

Bonnie Ford

I think for that race and the other two Grand Tours, so called the Giro D'italia and the wealthpania. It's all about recovery in the moment. The effort is what you're trained to do. And then how do you come back the next day and either climb another mountain or even if it's a different kind of stage, a flat stage or just a stage where you want to maintain that's the tough part, because even though the athletes are better taken care of than us journalists, I mean, they have staff there to take care of them and drive them places and give them massages.

Bonnie Ford

And all of that, it's still difficult, both physically and mentally, to recover. There's been a lot more specialization in cycling in recent years. It used to be that you had to be good at everything. You had to be good at climbing and time trials and sprinting. And now you'd see much more bifurcation of that. So on a given day, you're only riding 100 miles at trying to maintain your position as opposed to expending a ton of effort as a team leader. Right.

Todd Jones

But I just see that thin little bike, those thin tires, sometimes it's raining, they're going down a freaking mountain. And I say to myself, that looks absolutely insane.

Bonnie Ford

It is insane. And I found that out early on in my cycling coverage. I got into a team car, not during the Tour, but during a lead up race in the Alps. And that's when I started to understand that descending going down calls for I don't want to rank these things, but it is certainly the most risky part of what they do other than being in the middle of a bunch sprint and the speed you cannot comprehend it on television. You just can't the body control the nerve, the eye that it takes.

Bonnie Ford

There's some fantastic athletes in the peloton who are not great defenders because it takes kind of an extra tool kit that not everybody has. And the risk. And I mean, there have been deaths in high speed descent for that reason. And again, the tires are skinny and they're not wearing. Thankfully, now there is a helmet requirement. But that wasn't even always true. So it's a very high risk occupation. And it's also true that once an athlete loses confidence because of a major crash or a terrible injury that takes a long time to come back from that can affect the rest of their career.

Bonnie Ford

Understandably? Oh, yeah.

Todd Jones

How could it not when you think about it? Well, you can't mention the Tour, obviously, without mentioning Lance Armstrong, and you've done so much in your career that I didn't want to just focus on Lance with you. But I'd be remiss not to ask you about him. He won seven straight Tour de France's races and then became this icon, this thing, and then everything changed. Do you get triggered when I mentioned Lance Armstrong?

Bonnie Ford

No, I don't. I'm actually with a few years of perspective, I'm grateful that I had such a compelling figure for so much of my career to cover. He taught me more probably than any other single person I've ever covered. Because what do you teach you? You have to put him up in the top ranked of most competitive athletes ever in any sport. The drive that that guy had. Yes, it was illegally enhanced. But you have to start with a pretty high level base of athleticism so complicated.

Bonnie Ford

It humbled me, I guess, is the best word I can use, because I really threw myself into cycling coverage, and I had thrown myself into trying to understand doping and all those related issues. And this deception that was practice was going on right under my nose. I mean, sometimes down the hall in the same hotel, and I didn't have it. Many reporters tried to get up the story for years, but because of his power and influence in the sport, in the industry, there just wasn't anyone willing to talk about it for a long time.

Bonnie Ford

And of course, many of them would have implicated themselves, which is what ended up happening. Right. So it taught me never to be too cocky about what I know and what I don't know in any given field and not to make assumptions. I think there was an assumption made by not only us journalists, but a lot of the public that, wait. This guy survived this horrible cancer. There's no way in the world that he would put bad drugs into his body. Or there's no way in the world that he would risk his reputation to do this.

Bonnie Ford

Well, when you make that assumption as a journalist, then you are cutting off that part of your curiosity that you need to use.

Todd Jones

Right.

Bonnie Ford

And it was very hard for people to hold that tension in their heads that this guy could have accomplished some good and given people hope and so on and so on. But that he could also be a deceptive person who bullied people. Yeah.

Todd Jones

Bullied you you were at the receiving end of some of those.

Bonnie Ford

Well, I can't being bullied as a journalist is an occupational hazard. In a way. Again, I'm almost glad that happened, too, because it made me understand a little bit of how others who were far more the target of his wrath must have felt.

Todd Jones

It'S interesting. I never really covered cycling, so I never had to really write about Lance other than occasionally from very far, which how much authority did I have in those situations? So in some ways, I was removed from it journalistically. But personally, he pissed me off. My mother died of cancer at age 56 right around that time, and I used to wear that bracelet because I allowed myself to fall into that storyline because I wasn't writing about it as a journalist. I was thinking of it in terms of a personal story.

Right?

Todd Jones

And so when it all came down, man, it just kind of made me angry. But I was probably angry about a lot of things that happened with my mother's situation, and Lance became a target of that from afar for myself. And I think I went back and we read a column of yours recently at the height of all that, and there was a line in there. There's a column about Lance. I think it was right after he was on the Oprah show, and the line that you wrote was beware of myth making.

Todd Jones

And I think that's so true. I think that's so true when you look at it as sports writers, as journalists, sometimes you have to just stop yourself from creating the myth or perpetuating the myth or not questioning the myth. And that's a hard thing to do, because that's not a popular thing that we all love the story.

Bonnie Ford

Right?

Todd Jones

And it's just very complex. Like you said, it's complicated. So even for a person like myself who doesn't have the personal experience of writing about Lance all those years like you did, it's still complicated even for me as a reader. So I don't know how you handled it so well over these years as a journalist.

Bonnie Ford

Well, myths are fun, and myths are necessary that we tell ourselves myths for a reason. And again, the fact that there was this deception doesn't necessarily obviate the fact that people got hope and inspiration. Those two things can coexist weirdly. People want sports to be simple. And we as writers when we're sitting and watching a thrilling event, we don't want to be doubting every single person we see on the field of play for one reason or another. We want to enjoy the moment. And so when I talk to journalism students, which I really enjoy doing, and thank goodness, there's still a lot of really great bright minds out there who are training to be journalists, I tell them you just have to live with attention just as you do in every other field of play, whether it's politics or education or there are no real white hats and black hats and just live with attention.

Bonnie Ford

Understand that there's a possibility that you're not seeing the whole iceberg, and you can deal with that later in a lot of respects. Don't get paralyzed on deadline because you think you have to include every single nuance in a game story or even a feature or a column. It can unspool over a number of years. And of course, you try to get as close as you can to the truth at any given time, but you're not going to get it in every snapshot. Yeah.

Todd Jones

I think looking back, I think if I had to deal with it as a journalist, the whole Lands topic, I would have handled it much better because I would have handled it as a journalist, right? And not as somebody trying to read something into hope and so forth. But like you said, it's complicated. But sports are life, and life is complicated. It's not black and white. There are shades of Gray. And you have always been willing to go into those shades of Gray. And that's one thing I've always admired about your work in the last decade or so.

Todd Jones

You've really made a point of really writing about athletes rights, safety, mental health, working conditions, strong women voices. Is there something about all those topics that just came together at a point in your career? Where, again, that path led you to those type of Gray areas and things that we don't necessarily think about when we're watching that game?

Bonnie Ford

This is going to sound a little self centered, but honestly, I just didn't want to be bored. It can get old doing anything for the amount of time that you and I have done. It can get old. And I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to look at Gray areas. I wanted to treat my story subjects in the way that I would want to be treated and not have people make assumptions about me or caricature me. That's interesting.

Todd Jones

That's interesting.

Bonnie Ford

And now it's just exploded this sort of area of reporting on mental health, coaching, abuse of all different kinds. And if I could go back, I think of all the stories that I probably missed or the nuances that I didn't explore. This is a bit of a somber topic, but I think it's really important. We have lost some young people, sometimes literally, we've lost them to mental health issues or they've been impaired and impeded in their life path because we just assume they're athletes and they're strong and they're going to get through these issues and transitions.

Bonnie Ford

And it's just not. So I feel like we get so much pleasure out of them and communal joy and seeing accomplishments. And then we just sort of check out and would we do that with our sons and daughters and other loved ones? No. So I feel a little bit not maternal, but just protective, I guess, of these athletes, I think, thank goodness that athletes of high profile like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps and others are openly talking about this, right? It's huge progress.

Todd Jones

I think about the great story you did about Alison Schmidt, the swimmer, the Olympic swimmer. And again, a story that takes a long time to report and write and put together. And she decided to use her platform to discuss depression. A lot of it tied to the suicide of her cousin April and also just to come down from being in an Olympic spotlight to not that story meant a lot to me as a reader. What did it mean to you as a writer?

Bonnie Ford

The story of Alison Schmidt Allison was ahead of her time, I'll tell you, because that was only five years ago, but people were still not talking about it. People were still not talking about it with the transparency that they are now. And Alison, while she's a very bubbly, outgoing, fun person, she wasn't the first person I would have thought of to lead a charge. But she was on a mission. And that was an example of when we're talking about long form versus beat coverage or daily coverage.

Bonnie Ford

I was assigned to cover the Pan Am Games in Toronto in 1095. Listen to me. I was assigned to cover the Pan Am Games in Toronto in 2015, and it's not the highest profile event in the world, but I'm like, yeah, sure. I'll go and gather some stories and maybe I'll get some ideas. And Alison spoke on the pool deck about this after a race for like, a minute, and I felt goosebumps. I'm like, I got to talk to this woman some more. I didn't know her very well.

Bonnie Ford

I don't think any of us really knew her very well. She was always in Michael's shadow, and even though she was a multiple Olympic medalist, and so it took a while. She was on board immediately. As soon as I told her what I wanted to do, she was on board with it. But I went about it very slowly because I understood there was a deep well there, and I wasn't going to just go right to it. I interviewed a lot of people who were close to her.

Bonnie Ford

I tried to follow her in some different environments, including speaking engagements and that sort of thing. And then finally, when I really felt grounded in her story and her cousin's story, which was so interwoven with hers, that's when we sat down and did an interview that I will never forget because I really didn't know what she was going to tell me. I knew in generalities, but I did not know how badly she had suffered until she spoke to me. And I'm getting goosebumps now talking about it.

Bonnie Ford

So that's what I remember, Todd. Yeah, big events. And I've loved it. But when you build trust with someone to the point where they are willing to share that and willing to trust you with their story, that's the one thing that I would pull out of my career and say, I'm just so proud and happy I was able to do that. Yeah.

Bonnie Ford

I got more of a response to that story than almost any other story I've ever written.

Todd Jones

Well, you've done such a great job at it over the years. So many awesome long form stories, great investigations, great beat coverage, moments and time events. And I know you left ESPN on your own choosing in December, but I also know you're too talented and has too much of a curious mind to stop. So I'm sure at some point there'll be more storytelling in your future. I'm not trying to put you on the spot, but I look forward to reading more of the stories that you write, Bonnie.

Todd Jones

They're the kind that take the reader past what's happened on the field or on the court and make it a communal experience that we can all relate to as humans. So I was there on that mountain with you in France, even if I had never been there because of reading the type of stuff that you did. So I'm looking forward to more of it. I want more of this. Bonnie, tell us more. Do some more stories for us when you're ready.

Bonnie Ford

That's awesome of you to say, Todd. I feel a little bit like I've got 1ft in the great resignation as they're calling it now, taking a break. I feel so much for my colleagues who are still in the thick of it and trying to deal still with all these covered restrictions, all this stuff we've been talking about building relationships and trust, and it's really hard to do that on Zoom, right. And so I hope, for everyone's sake, for the sake of global health, among other things, that we're able to sort of resume life as we knew it, and that sports journalists are able to actually stand in front of the people that they're writing about that would be great.

Bonnie Ford

As for my own future, I don't know. I'm taking a break. I have to tell you that I haven't felt any great urge to sit and type recently, but I'm also going to give myself time for that to change.

Todd Jones

Well, you deserve all the time you can get, and I hope you're enjoying it. And I just want to thank you for taking the time to join us on pressbox Access. It's been a real treasure to speak about the different moments of your career, and I know I enjoyed it. And hopefully the listeners enjoyed it, too.

Bonnie Ford

And you, Todd, thanks. We are kind of not always great at telling our own stories as journalists, so I'm glad you're doing this.

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