Kathryn Tappen’s schedule as the USA Network studio host for NBCUniversal’s coverage of the Tokyo Olympics would seem enough to make even a morning person long to sleep in at least once in a while.
“Let’s see, today I woke up about 3:45 a.m.,” she said during a telephone conversation that began Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time — or 4:30 a.m. Thursday in Tokyo, which is 13 hours ahead. “I’ll be in hair and makeup by 5:15, I’ll be on set by 6:30, and we’re live at 7 a.m. our time, so 6 p.m. Eastern time.”
So far, though, her body clock is winning the battle with those crazy early times on the alarm clock.
“I don’t mind it at all,” she said. “I love getting up early and going to bed early, so I’m in bed by 8:15, 8:30 except when breaking news happens. I’ve been enjoying the schedule, it’s actually been quite lovely.”
Getting used to a different time zone is just one of the adjustments that has been required for these Olympics. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, fans are not permitted in the venues during the events, and media there to cover the Games must go through a 14-day soft quarantine that includes testing for each of the first five days in the country, as well as on the 10th and 14th day.
“Day 14, we are released to the wilderness, so I can go out and explore,” said Tappen, whose 14th day was Saturday. “They’re very strict here, very disciplined, you have to wear your mask all the time, we’ve got apps that are tracking us. But it’s not difficult. You adhere to the rules and do what you’re supposed to do.”
Tappen has plans to hit some spots in Tokyo with her friend and former NESN colleague Naoko Funayama, who grew up in the city. But for the first two weeks, she has been limited to the Hilton Hotel in Odaiba where NBC personnel are staying, and the network’s studios just across the street. “I put on my flip-flops and cross the street in the morning. That’s my commute.
“As far as the atmosphere, it’s a very different Olympics, but the joy, and the excitement, and all the positivity, and the wonderfulness that comes with an Olympic Games is here.”
Tappen, who was with NESN for five years beginning in 2006 and has been at NBC Sports since 2014, has covered four Olympics. She was a hockey host for the Winter Games in Sochi (2014) and PyeongChang (2018), and served as the beach volleyball reporter in the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro (2016). This is her most prominent role so far, and probably the most challenging.
“I think Thursday was the first day I felt like I took my skate guards off,” said Tappen. “It’s a total learning curve. The first day we were on the air, last Wednesday, you would have thought I had never done TV. It was 90-minute chunks in between softball and women’s soccer, and you’re talking about fencing athletes and taekwondo and sports I’m still studying up on. But the cool part about that is that I’m learning so much and it’s a new challenge for me, and I’m not at my best when I’m not challenged.
“It’s very similar, actually, to PyeongChang when I was hosting hockey, because there were no NHL players there. So, we all had to learn all of these names and all of these athletes that were not familiar to us. Fortunately, our research department and writing department is incredible. We get research packets every single day.”
Tappen said part of the fun about covering sports with which she is not deeply familiar is the chance to ask competitors questions that viewers at home might be curious about.
“We had on Carissa Moore, who won the gold medal in surfing,” Tappen said. “While she was competing, we had this typhoon that came in, I was like, ‘How do you even surf in a typhoon?’ I mean, none of us can jump into a wave like that. So, that has been the cool part about it, I’m learning a lot.”
Tappen said she’s also been fixated on skateboarding. Legend Tony Hawk joined her in studio one afternoon, and his accessibility to competitors that idolize him left an impression.
“He’s just ripping around the skate park and they’re like, ‘Yep, there’s Tony Hawk, testing out the course.’ He’s the legend and an ambassador, and the mutual admiration between him in the younger competitors is really cool to see,” Tappen said. “You don’t get to usually see something like that. I mean, Michael Jordan isn’t out there hitting threes on the court before the men’s NCAA basketball tournament.”
To most viewers, Tappen is associated with hockey. She was a host at NHL Network after leaving NESN, and has been prominent on NBC’s NHL coverage since ‘14. She acknowledges that she’ll miss covering the NHL with its broadcast rights moving to ESPN and Turner Sports next season, but is happy with her role at NBC, which includes working on NFL and Notre Dame football coverage, as well as a new opportunity NBC hasn’t yet announced.
“It’s definitely going to be weird for me when the hockey season starts and I’m not talking about hockey,” she said. “It’s funny, we were on the set Tuesday and I’m talking about a couple of deals the Blackhawks made while we were in a commercial break, and my producer is like, ‘Uh, Kathryn, hang on, we’ve got the 3-on-3 basketball coming up.’ So I still have my eyes on it the same way I would if I were covering it.
“One door closed, but there are some really good ones opening, and I’m excited to stay at NBC and continue to build on what I have. It’ll be hard, but I know I’ll still be watching [the NHL] as a fan.”