“No one usually stands ahead of Michael on the podium,” Joseph Schooling said, wryly aware of the large dollop of understatement contained within that phrase.
The 22-year-old is looking back at one of the most exciting races of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and the Michael he is talking about is Phelps, the USA’s 23-time Olympic swimming gold medallist. The Olympic Games’ most decorated athlete of all-time was going for his fourth consecutive gold in the men’s 100m butterfly. There was also the small matter of 2013 and 2015 100m butterfly world champion Chad Le Clos and 2015 200m butterfly World Championship gold medallist Laszlo Cseh on the blocks.
“All I remember is walking out. It was an exciting feeling. I was very nervous, everything was at a high, all my senses were at a high,” Schooling recalled.
“I was so focused. When you have your most focused races you have no recollection of the race, maybe the last 15 or 20m for a moment and then after that, bamm I hit the wall.”
Hit the wall he did, in 50:39 seconds, 0:79 seconds ahead of Phelps, Le Clos and Cseh, a holy triumvirate of swimming behemoths, all of whom tied for silver.
There are almost no words to describe the enormity of what Schooling did. He tries to elucidate the “fantastic feelings” but eventually settles for “it was a truly remarkable achievement”.
In a wonderful Hollywood-esque touch, eagerly snapped up by the global media, a photograph of a bespectacled, 13-year-old Schooling, complete with braces and an awkward star-struck gaze, standing next to Phelps in 2008 was splashed everywhere. Taken on a Team USA training camp in Singapore, as Phelps made his way to the Beijing Games, it actually played a smaller role for Schooling than some suggested.
“I never forgot about that picture,” said Schooling, who was studying for an exam when his mother told him his hero Phelps was in the club pool. “But it was never in my room. It was never anywhere, it was just on my mum’s camera.
“It was pretty cool the way things turned out. What a coincidence. But if I hadn’t won, that picture would still mean a lot to me and it would be irrelevant to everyone else.”What was certainly relevant was that after the Rio Games, Schooling had, at the age of 21, achieved all he’d ever dreamed of. Understandably, and no doubt sensibly, the first Singaporean to win a Commonwealth Games medal, the first to win a world championship medal and the first to claim an Olympic gold medal, took the rest of 2016 off.
“I did a lot of things outside of the pool, I am not going to go into specifics of what,” he laughed, as he reflected on an unprecedented four months of freedom.
It may come as no surprise to hear that there has been a drop in performance in the eight months since the University of Texas student got back in the pool.
“It was really hard, hard to motivate myself to keep training after Rio and it has definitely showed,” Schooling admitted. Having dominated the USA’s collegiate NCAA Championships in the previous two seasons, picking up four individual titles and setting numerous records, the Singaporean faltered this year. Pushed into second place in the 100m butterfly, Schooling did not even make the final of the 200m butterfly.
“I’m pretty disappointed, honestly speaking, about my performances,” he said. “I haven’t been training as well as I had been, especially leading up to Rio.”
Further frustration came at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest in July. After finishing fifth in the 50m butterfly, Schooling lined up for his marquee event, the 100m butterfly. He tied for bronze in 50:83 seconds, almost half a second slower than his winning time in Rio.
“It’s all about finding a different drive and motivation again. I have got to find something that pushes me and I definitely found it at the World Championships,” he said. “I don’t like losing and I don’t like getting beat - and I got killed at that meet.
“If I want to win again, I have to put in the work, and I do want to win again.”
The emergence of his old high school teammate, the USA’s Caeleb Dressel, as a major force in world swimming is an additional, powerful motivator. The 19-year-old touched out Schooling in the 100m butterfly at the NCAA Championships in the spring and left him for dead in the same event in Budapest – one of seven world championship gold medals Dressel won.
“I am getting beat in my own event and that is not how it should be,” Schooling said. “Seeing Caeleb come up, seeing my disappointment, it definitely spurs me on to do better for next year and re-take what is mine.”
The fact that Dressel’s winning time in Budapest was 49.86 seconds, just 0.04 seconds off Phelps’ era-defining world record, is another factor that will help haul Schooling out of bed and into the training pool.
“There is nothing special, no secret to it, just hard work, grinding away,” he said. “The path is the path and I am definitely learning from my mistakes.”