Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In the 2012 London Olympics, Michael Phelps — the most decorated Olympian of all time — lost to South Africa’s Chad Le Clos during a 200-m butterfly, an event Phelps had always won in over 12 years. After this, he went inside the ready room where team U.S.A. was.
“[Phelps] comes in, and says, ‘Conor, you better get me a lead,” recalls swimmer Conor Dwyer (who was in the Olympic Games for the first time) during the sports clinic hosted by Bench here in Manila. “I’m already nervous, then I have the greatest Olympian of all time saying [that] … I ended up helping get us a lead and we won by six seconds in 2012.”
Dwyer was in the country along with fellow Olympic athlete Arthur Nory for the new Bench Active campaign. During the clinic, he spoke about his sports journey to a group of young athletes — from starting at age 15 to getting rejected by universities because he wasn’t fast enough. He shares how he tried different sports like basketball, soccer, and baseball, before deciding to commit to swimming, albeit relatively late.
“At age 15, Michael Phelps was competing in the world’s largest stage. At 15, I wasn’t even swimming yet,” he says.
Nory, who is from Brazil, was also in the clinic and had the same sentiments, as he started gymnastics at age 11. He shares that most professional gymnasts who have managed to reach the Olympics would start at age 6 or 7. “[I] had to catch up all the time,” he says in Portuguese.
After years of training, joining youth Olympics games, and suffering from two surgeries due to his sport, Nory won bronze at the 2016 Olympics. Despite starting late, both Dwyer and Nory emphasize to the athletes in the audience that so long as they’re willing to put in the work, the hours, and the discipline, they can be a step closer to their dream of becoming an Olympian.
“I don’t think there’s any typical path in whatever dream you dream of. If you’re willing to set a dream and outwork people and believe in the goal-setting with the people around you, then you can accomplish anything,” says Dwyer.
Nory agrees. “When your goals are big and your training and actions are just as strong, your dreams can come true.”
One of the athletes in the audience, Samantha Mata, who is part of the UP Pep Squad and the Gymnastics Association of the Philippines, says that it’s important to hear those words from a world-renowned athlete himself. “It’s really inspiring to see someone who reached that dream to be able to talk to people like us who aspire to do the same,” she says.
Coach Angelo Lozada of the Bert Lozada Swim School, who was also one of the participants, says that there should be more of these talks and clinics, if only to motivate Filipino athletes. “There are swimmers here who have already felt [discouraged] and then hearing [Conor] say those things, it’s inspiring,” he says.
Lozada adds how all of his young swimmers have given up a lot of luxuries and experiences that people their own age usually enjoy just to reach their goals of perhaps representing the Philippines in the international games. “They train regularly because one day they might be able to reach the goal of qualifying for the Olympics,” he says. “And with the journey that Conor said, it’s the same thing that they’re doing, it means they’re on the right track.”
There are individual obstacles that these athletes need to overcome, but there are also larger scale roadblocks that may hinder their dreams. According to this report, sports analyst Ronnie Nathanielsz says that sports development is just not a priority of the Philippine government, which is telling in the lack of support for our athletes.
“Kulang pa,” says Mata on the funding provided by the government. “There are a lot of things to be worked on like equipment, especially.”
Lozada also adds how swimmers like Dwyer are able to sustain their sport because there is a professional division in the U.S. “They get paid in order to swim. Here in the Philippines, there’s none. After their collegiate years, no more. There’s nowhere else to go.”
Another main deterrent for athletes, according to Lozada, is the educational system in the Philippines. “Unlike in the U.S. or other countries, [where students] come in at around 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m., they finish around 2:30 p.m., they’re done. Here, they come in at 7 a.m. and finish at 5 p.m,” he explains.
“In spite of this, they’re really working hard. We really have to merge our educational system with sport.”