Joseph Schooling makes waves in the pool to win Singapore’s first Olympic gold
Joseph Schooling shot to superstar status by winning Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold in the 100m butterfly at Rio 2016. To add to the momentousness of his achievement, he did so by beating 28-time gold medallist Michael Phelps to the top of the podium.
When Schooling met his childhood hero at the age of 13, he could hardly have imagined that eight years later he would rob the most successful Olympian of all time of his fifth gold in Rio.
Yet on 12 August 2016, the 21-year-old did just that, winning by a margin of 0.75 seconds to set a new Olympic record of 50.39 seconds, 0.75 seconds ahead of Phelps, with South Africa's Chad le Clos in third.
Olympic blood in his veins
Born in 1995 with Olympic blood in his veins – his great-uncle was Singapore's first ever Olympian in 1948 – Schooling was encouraged to pursue his love for swimming from an early age by parents who had themselves enjoyed sporting careers.
He began winning medals from the age of four, and by eight he was waking his father up to take him training at 4.30 a.m.
Thanks to his father's intervention, Schooling was able to defer his obligatory two-year military service, allowing him to continue his progress in the pool uninterrupted.
Aged 13, Schooling moved to Florida to train with world-class coach Sergio Lopez. As he admits, the first year was a tough learning curve: "I was a little spoiled in Singapore as a kid, never had to pick up after myself... It was a huge awakening." Yet his ambition to reach the Olympic Games helped him overcome any temptation to beat a retreat home.
Still a teenager, he qualified for London 2012 after winning the 200m butterfly at the 2011 Southeast Asian Games. Disaster struck, however, when a temporary loss of focus saw him miss out on the semi-finals, after his swimming cap and goggles failed to pass branding regulations before his heats. This had a profound impact on his confidence and he lost his way for the next six months.
"That was probably one of the most horrible experiences of my life," he recalls. "I didn't want to swim anymore."
Resetting the clock
In retrospect, however, the young Olympian now sees the incident as a positive learning experience:
"I'm glad it happened. It made me mature, as an athlete and a person. Those are the kind of setbacks we need sometimes to find out what we are really made of," he reflects. "If you really want to do this, put it behind you, start moving on. The clock resets every four years."
His determination renewed, he set his sights on a medal in Rio. When his parents said they would watch him on the TV at home, he replied: "Mum, I'm going on the podium. You're not coming?!'"
The whole nation stopped to watch Schooling secure his victory, and on his return, he was greeted like a movie star, with an airport packed full of fans to welcome him, and celebrations on the streets. He even had an orchid named in his honour – the Dendrobium Joseph Schooling.
"The response I got home was a better feeling than winning," he says. "Previously we haven't been a sporting nation at all, so to see this glimmer of hope for the sporting scene in Singapore, I think that's excited a lot of people."
Now studying at the University of Texas and coached by two-time US Olympic men's head coach Eddie Reese, all eyes will be on Schooling at Tokyo 2020. And Reese believes the Singaporean can achieve even greater things: "He's nowhere near as fast as he can go," predicts the American.