Event report "The power of creativity and imagination ~Learning from the very best; how to handle difficulties~"

Event report "The power of creativity and imagination ~Learning from the very best; how to handle difficulties~"

Panasonic Center TOKYO held an online event series; "The power of creativity and imagination", where guests are invited to think together about various social issues. On Saturday, July 31st, a conversation was held with Panasonic brand ambassador, Michael Phelps, who has participated in five Olympic Games and won a total of 28 medals. Natsumi Hoshi, also an Olympian swimmer, was invited as the facilitator.

Michael established the "Michael Phelps Foundation" in 2008, where he has been working to promote water safety, healthy living (physical and mental), and the pursuit of dreams. Ms. Hoshi also had the experience of continuing the competition while dealing with illness, and the event turned out to be a very meaningful session for the participants to learn about the importance of physical and mental health, and how to pursuit their dreams.

Photo: Michael Phelps
Photo: Natsumi Hoshi

Theme 1 "Looking back on the swimming career"

Michael told us that the reason he was first put into water was because his mother wanted him to be safe in the water, and that this incident made him start swimming. His two older sisters were also swimmers, one who was a world-class butterfly swimmer at the age of 12, which made Michael adopt the butterfly stroke naturally. "I'm happy I'm not swimming it now (there are swimmers such as Kristof Milak who excelled at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020)", Michael added on with a laugh. Probably his competitors in the active days would say, "Wait, look who's talking!"

Ms. Hoshi then asked, "Do you still swim?" As Michael answered, "Not much. If I do, it's for my own mental health. I feel like it's the only place that is quiet and it's a way for me to escape from the world", Ms. Hoshi replied with a deep nod agreeing that she feels the same way. It was an exchange that showed their love for swimming.

Photo: talking about Looking back on the swimming career

The session then moved on to the topics of the Olympic Games.
When asked by Ms. Hoshi what the stage of the Olympic Games mean to him, Michael answered that the Olympic Games are a part of his life. He then continued, "The Olympic Games are so special because it brings people together. Over the last three or four Olympic Games, we've been able to have the Olympic Games while something else is going on throughout the world, and it's a different time right now especially with the pandemic. So being able to still find a way to make the Olympic Games possible, I think it's so special. I have to give all the credit in the world to Japan and the city of Tokyo for being able to make this event possible."

The next question was about the most memorable medal that he has achieved. After a moment of thought, Michael told us, "Every single one of my medal means something different, and all of them are very special." But he did pick up a few for us such as Olympic Games Beijing 2008 where he won eight gold medals and broke seven world records, Olympic Games Rio 2016 where he had his family in the stands, including his wife Nicole and their son Boomer, and in 2004 where he first won an Olympic medal.

Photo: Natsumi Hoshi

The conversation moved on to the topic about difficulties during their swimming careers. "I had an illness when I was 16 years old, and for about 10 years, I had to compete while dealing with illness. What difficulties and hardships did you have, Michael?" asked Ms. Hoshi. "I was very fortunate to not have any major setbacks", answered Michael. He explained in addition that he was lucky to have seen his older sister, who was also a butterfly swimmer, being put out of the sport for good as a result of overtraining. This was a good example for Michael as he took a different approach and preparation to the sport, which avoided him from any major physical difficulties.

The participants could understand his diligent attitude towards swimming, and were lucky enough to hear his special feelings for the Olympic Games. We felt that in his phrase, "The Olympic Games brings people together", we could see the significance of the Tokyo 2020 Games being held.

Theme 2 "Introduction of the Michael Phelps Foundation"

Photo: Michael Phelps

As mentioned at the beginning, Michael is currently working on the activities of his own Michael Phelps Foundation, which he established in 2008 when he was still competing. Panasonic is supporting the expansion of his foundation as part of the partnership. The foundation mainly has three purposes. Firstly, to give children a chance to succeed in swimming. Secondly, to promote water safety, as water accidents are a leading cause of death for children. And lastly, to solve mental health problems.

When asked about the roles of the foundation regarding mental health problems, Michael answered, "Mental health is something so big, especially over this last year and a half. We've seen how many people are struggling from similar things that I've struggled from, like many athletes at this Olympic Games have been courageous to open up about their own challenges. So for me, being able to really dive into the mental health space has been a dream come true, and I want to help children accomplish their goals and dreams."

Theme 3 "Importance of mental health"

It seems that Michael realized the importance of mental health largely due to his own experience. "I came across depression for the first time after Olympic Games Athens 2004. I think that was just the jump start to my mental health, and after that, they just kept on coming in waves. That was when I was finally able to really see that, "This is who I am and it's a part of me, it's not going to go away." So I needed to learn more about it."

After that, Michael saw other athletes suffer from mental challenges just like he did. He also told us about the experience of providing support to fellow swimmers to help get through some struggles. He continued, "For me, it's been an honor that they've felt comfortable to be able to share their stories with me and allow me to try to help. It's very challenging for people to become vulnerable because they think it might be weakness. Where in reality, you're growing, you're learning and you're becoming stronger."

At the end of the session, Michael sent a message to the children participating in the event. "It's important to have a dream because that's what's going to drive you and motivate you. Nobody wants to get out of bed every single day, but a goal is going to help you. I would say the biggest thing is never give up. If there is something in your way, find a way to get around it, find a way to climb over it. Don't be afraid to dream as big as you possibly can. For me, growing up, people thought I was crazy wanting to do something different in the sport, do something nobody else never done in the sport, but I was excited. That was something that got me out of bed and motivated me every day, and my dream is my dream. So I think never let anything stand in your way, and if something doesn't go as planned, go back to come up with a new answer or a new path." The message from Michael, who overcame many difficulties and accomplished great achievements, were very powerful and seemed to have resonated many participants.

Photo: Natsumi Hoshi & Michael Phelps

After the talk session had finished, the two speakers answered to questions raised by the participants.

Question: What would you say to a friend who is struggling with mental health challenges?

Michael: "From my own experience, when I'm struggling with my own mental health, there are times when you feel like I'm all alone. So I want to try to get across everybody out there that you're not alone. It's OK to not be OK, and it's OK to ask for help. Especially over the last year and a half that we've been through, we've had a lot of challenges that have been thrown our way. You have somebody out there that can offer space for you."

Question: What do you think is necessary to continuously produce results?

Ms. Hoshi: "I always set a big goal, but not only that, I always set smaller goals that I can accomplish on the way. The bigger the goal, the harder it is to reach it, so I think it's important to keep on proceeding as you feel the satisfaction of accomplishing smaller goals."
Michael: "I agree 100 % with Ms. Hoshi. You have to have short term goals and long term goals. The Olympic Games happens every 4 years, and that's a long time. So you want to make sure that you have little stepping stones that you're reaching through those 4 years. We have world championships, Pan-Pacific, and then we have world championships again before our Olympic Games, so for me, those were all benchmarks. For me, it was all about preparation and training. That was my number one thing. If I wasn't doing that, I had no chance to even come close to my goals and dreams. I was willing to do anything, and that was the reason I was able to be successful."

The talk session ended just around the time when the finals of the women's 800m freestyle of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were going to be held. Michael, Ms. Hoshi, and the participating children cheered together for Katie Ledecky, American swimmer and also Panasonic brand ambassador, who was participating in her final race. Katie Ledecky defended the lead from start to finish, and won her fourth overall medal and second gold medal of the competition. The children, who seemed nervous at first, were all excited as the race progressed, and everyone seemed to have enjoyed cheering Katie together, as the session ended with a big applause from all participants.

As a closing message, we received some inspiration and comments from the two speakers.
Ms. Hoshi: "Today was such a wonderful experience for me. I really wanted to hear Michael's stories when I was still active, and I'm sure that the children were also able to gain lot of hints to reach their goals. Thank you very much."
Michael: "Obviously, I'd much rather be in person and have the event with you all, but being able to have the opportunity to talk to you, share some stories, watch Katie swim, this is a great day. I think the one thing I always say is dream big, and dream as big as you possibly can. That's what I'm still doing now, I have so many big goals that I'm trying to accomplish, and hopefully I can make a difference. And I think everybody should be the same. Never give up, try as hard as you can for whatever it is you're chasing."

Through listening to Michael's powerful stories, the participants seemed to have understood that medalists are not "Superman" but the same human beings after all, and that they are progressing towards their goals and dreams while facing many difficulties and struggles.
We hope that this event became an opportunity for the participants to take a big step towards achieving their dreams.