Tokyo Olympics a ‘once-in-a-lifetime experience’ for School of Communication alumna
At first it was hard for Kate Gest to understand the full magnitude of the journey she was undertaking. She had arrived in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic Games — which were being held in 2021 because of a COVID-19 postponement — and had been there for a few days, but the stress of getting there was still overwhelming.
Gest, the public relations and communications manager for USA Shooting and a 2016 multimedia journalism graduate from Virginia Tech’s School of Communication, had to clear a number of hurdles to get to that point.
The team traveled from Colorado Springs, checking their documents every few minutes to make sure everything was set for their trip halfway across the world. When they landed, it was off to get COVID-19 tested. Then, Gest felt the anxiety of awaiting those test results and getting situated in a new country.
Once all of that was in order and the lights kicked on for competition, it finally became surreal for Gest, one of the relative few in attendance at the 2020 Summer Games as USA Shooting’s press officer in Tokyo.
“I think it truly hit me when I saw the team on the first official competition day,” Gest said. “The facilities were pristine. It felt like we were at the Olympics.
“It didn’t fully sink in, though, until we won our first medal. I have never experienced anything like that. I was feeling somebody else’s joy. That was something just so amazing. It definitely put a more personal touch on winning a medal. You watch it on TV and you’re excited and you’re happy, but to be there and witness it and to know the person and their background, that’s when it all truly sunk in, like ‘Wow, I’m really here. We’re really doing this.’”
Gest’s wild ride at the Olympics was just beginning.
It was a delicate balance for her to perform her job duties of social media management and reporting in the midst of watching athletes she had grown deep connections with over the previous few years. One of those athletes was Amber English, the eventual winner of the skeet shooting event. English’s story was a poignant one.
English lost her father in between trials when she was an alternate for the team in 2016. She earned a spot on the 2020 team, but the COVID-19 pandemic put that appearance in jeopardy. Gest witnessed English’s diligence in ways that few have. It made that moment of gold so much sweeter.
“To watch her totally hunker down the last few months before the games, train like there’s no tomorrow, and then go out and win, you could just feel the relief and all the emotion,” Gest said. “People from other countries knew her story. There was such a small group there with no spectators, so you could just feel everyone’s pride in her. When I greeted her after she won, she said, ‘I can’t believe that’s over. I can’t believe I just did that.’ I will never forget that moment.”
Memories like that intensified Gest’s experience.
“I didn’t realize some of the sacrifices athletes take on to become Olympians,” Gest said. “It’s easy to turn on the Olympics once every two or four years and watch somebody win a gold medal and think, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ and then turn it off and forget about it. Yet for these athletes, this is the culmination of a lifetime of work. The hype is real. You’re watching people’s dreams come true.”
When Olympians on the USA Shooting team won a medal, Gest would escort them to media row, where reporters, looking to capture their raw emotions minutes after the accomplishment of a lifetime, would swarm them.
Gest relied on the connections she had forged with the athletes to best serve them. As their press officer, she had to weigh how each medalist would respond to the attention they were about to receive and choose the best plan of action.
“For somebody who wants to be a press officer in that capacity for the Games, it’s having those personal connections and knowing what’s going to make each athlete comfortable,” Gest said. “At the end of the day, they’re a person. Yes, they’re an Olympian and it’s incredible, but you still need to take into account their emotions and personality. That was the most important part of my job.”
“Kate was an integral part of the exceptional media coverage that USA Shooting athletes and medalists received in Tokyo,” said Buddy DuVall, USA Shooting’s chief marketing officer. “Her experience and on-the-ground presence as Shooting’s Olympic press officer in Tokyo was crucial in getting a record amount of coverage for our organization and our athletes’ Olympic success across multiple media platforms.”
From there, Gest would finish the final recaps on social media and write a release. She would then lead the victory tour. Within 24 hours of winning a medal, NBC wanted to have the Olympians in for interviews with Hoda Kotb (Communication ’86), Al Roker, and other broadcast journalists.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the moment, Gest said she thrived in it because of similar hands-on experiences she’d garnered during her time at Virginia Tech.
“I would think, ‘Wow, this totally reminds me of our studio in the Moss Arts Center.’ It was so cool to have that background and to see how it was working, especially for something as big as the TODAY Show,” Gest said. “It was so professionally run, and it gave me a taste of how it happens in the real world. At the same time, the experience definitely translated for me. I was comfortable enough to be able to direct the athletes appropriately.”
For those who knew her at Virginia Tech, where she also earned a bachelor’s in visual communication design in 2017, it’s no surprise that Gest would thrive in a role like being a press officer at the Olympics.
“Kate was a standout student from the time I met her during her freshman year in Communication Skills,” said Brandi Quesenberry, a senior instructor in the School of Communication. “I worked with her over the next four years as her academic advisor, observing tremendous growth in her as both a student and a young professional. Her passion for learning, strong work ethic, and positive attitude made her a pleasure to work with. I am so proud of all she has accomplished since graduating from Virginia Tech.”
Gest still reminisces on her Tokyo experiences. She recounts her teary-eyed moments of patriotism when “The Star-Spangled Banner” first played, her chats with press officers who had attended the Olympics across three decades, and the generous hospitality of the Japanese people.
Ultimately, Gest reflects on the path it took her to get to this point. It’s one that truly hasn’t sunk in yet, much like her journey at the Olympics.
“After school, I took a different career path and came back to this,” Gest said. “If you are an intuitive, empathetic graduate from the School of Communication, then you’re probably a great communicator and a great writer who knows how to storytell. I knew I always wanted to be involved in sports, but sportscasting wasn’t the right fit for me, and this was a way to continue to do that without going down a more traditional route. It’s been such a cool job and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Written by Cory Van Dyke