Making it to the FINA World Championships or the Olympic Games is a feat of countless dreams for youngsters. For Miyako Tanaka of Japan, it’s one she was one to turn her dream into reality. Her sporting highlights as an artistic swimmer include a collection of global medals, including bronze at both the 5th FINA World Championships Madrid 1986 and Seoul 1988 Olympic Games.
From then to today, Miyako Tanaka is still in the sporting game – now she’s just on a different side of the field of play. These days, Miyako is working with national teams and aspiring athletes work on strategies for the mental side of high performance.
Sometimes, the most seemingly small detail offers a glimpse into the mindset that drives a person onwards and upwards.
Visiting Miyako’s Twitter page, there’s an illustration of her on a blue-green background with the words Keep Movin’ Forward emblazoned in red ink for her header image. This motto seems to follow a philosophy in Miyako’s life – one where she starred for Team Japan with her artistic swimming teammates in the mid-1980s before successfully transitioning to the next chapters in her career.
In the pool, Miyako excelled – in the Women’s Solo Figures and Women Team events, but especially in the Duet with her artistic swimming partner Mikako Kotani. Following four bronze medals in international competition, including at the 5th FINA World Championships Madrid 1986 in the Women Team competition, Miyako and Mikako would reach the podium once more at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games in the Duet event.
The Japanese duo backed up their solid technical score of 92.75 with a 96.80 in the free to take home the bronze behind the United States’ silver medal performance from Sarah and Karen Josephson and the winning Duet of Michelle Cameron and Carolyn Waldo from Canada.
Fascinated with how hard work can mix with a high-stake event to turn aspiration into reality – when the person has cultivated the right mental state for the situation, Miyako’s changing last name, from Tanaka to Tanaka-Oulevey, PhD tells a bit of the story of what the Tokyo native and mother of two has been up to since.
Miyako’s last name also helps hint at what Miyako has been up to and puts in perspective someone fully invested in helping athletes, artists and managers enhance their mental performance on a daily basis.
With Miyako in FINA’s hometown of Lausanne, Switzerland to donate her competition swimwear from the Seoul 1988 Games to the Olympic Museum and sign the Athletes’ Wall at the nearby International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters, we had the chance to catch up with Miyako for a quick-but-insightful conversation.
Miyako-san, congrats on your great career. Since we’re here celebrating your success from the Seoul 1988 Olympics, what’s one special memory you have from these Games?
Towards the Seoul Olympics, it was the hardest life. We practised so much. For example, we practised almost 12 hours a day, every day. That’s what I remember most.
At the same time, we had a goal: we wanted to earn a medal. At this time, we were highly focused.
Yes, yes, yes.
You also competed at the 5th FINA World Championships 1986 in -
Next year, the FINA World Championships are headed back to Fukuoka. Could we possibly see you there? With the Tokyo Olympics and now the World Championships coming to Japan this must be an exciting time to your country, especially the up-and-coming athletes and those already on the world stage.
Ah, yes. You’ll see me in Fukuoka.
As you know, the Tokyo 2020 Games took place during a pandemic, so we didn’t have an ideal event. But in Fukuoka, fortunately, we will have the ideal competition. There will be very good sights there so I hope all swimmers, divers and water polo players from all over the world can compete peacefully because this year we had many, many troubles in the world. I hope that everybody can peacefully compete safely in Japan. Japan is one of the safest countries. I hope that everybody can enjoy that. All Japanese aquatics athletes are waiting for this.
Since your competition days, you’ve had quite a career. Working in sport psychology as a mental coach for the Japan women’s national football team and Paralympic athletes. What drew you to this field of study?
After retiring from sports, I kind of lost myself. I just really had a hard time regarding athletic identity. I just lost my goal in my life so psychology really helped me. Not only during my athletic life, but also after retirement. So, if psychology can help many athletes, then I’d like to do that. That’s what drove me to study psychology. So, hopefully, I am helpful to many youngsters. That’s now my goal. That’s what I do.
Any pointers for today’s athletes?
Ah, very good question. Maybe one of the very most important things is just be you. You know, winning is important. Of course, everybody wants to win. But at the same time, we have two ways to win. One is to medal: that’s what everybody can see. The second is, ‘have you done your best? The best you can, on that important day?’ This kind of feeling is very important. So, simply do your best. And if you can do your best on that important day, then even after when you’re retired, you can do the same thing. The process is the same. Whatever you do after, wherever your professional career is after, you can do the same thing. So just do your best.
Tied to sport psychology, I also understand that you regularly consult athletes on career transitions. Any thoughts for athletes going through this now, or for those athletes looking to set themselves up for future success once their athletic careers come to an end?
After retirement, I just want to tell all athletes, please worry. It sounds like a negative, but I don’t want to say, ‘don’t worry’ because thinking about your future, even with anxiety, is actually a positive thing. If you have a really stressful feeling, this is a chance to think about who you really are or what you really want to do.
After retiring from your athletic career, don’t be too positive — but don’t be too negative, either. Just think, and then do. That’s the most important thing. It’s okay to have some worry about what’s to come next. It’s okay to be anxious. You can overcome — because you have been overcoming all those kinds of thoughts and feelings before, anyway.
Postscript: Miyaka’s competition wear from the Seoul 1988 Games joins the collection of artefacts – think torches, trophies, Olympic stamp and coin collections – to be conserved and displayed at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. Next time you’re in FINA’s backyard – the Olympic capital city of Lausanne, Switzerland, come check out the Olympic Museum. And when you do, don't forget to see Miyaka’s competition wear on display!
Contributing: Jacopo Briatore