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Joseph Schooling: Grit, guts and the pursuit of glory

FORT LAUDERDALE — There is something special about national swimmer Joseph Schooling. Perhaps it is the swagger in his walk, or the six-pack abs and cheeky grin that sets teenage girls’ hearts aflutter.

FORT LAUDERDALE — There is something special about national swimmer Joseph Schooling. Perhaps it is the swagger in his walk, or the six-pack abs and cheeky grin that sets teenage girls’ hearts aflutter.

It could be the fact that the 21-year-old is now ranked seventh among the world’s fastest 100m butterfly swimmers, or that historic bronze medal he won at last year’s Fina Swimming World Championships.

American swim legend Michael Phelps certainly believes so, with the 18-time Olympic gold medallist an admirer of the Singaporean, particularly after his first-ever loss to Schooling in the men’s 100m butterfly final at the Longhorn Aquatics Elite Invite meet earlier this month.

And there is little doubt that Schooling is on the brink of something special as the Olympic Games counts down to the opening ceremony in Rio on Aug 5. TODAY takes a look at the things that make Schooling Singapore’s Special One:


In 2009, Schooling and his parents, Colin and May, made the difficult decision for him to leave Singapore for Bolles School in Florida to further his swimming career.

Uprooting from a comfortable life as a single child to a foreign land thousands of kilometres from home was tough on the teenager from Anglo-Chinese School Independent, who had to cope with cooking, making his own bed, and doing his laundry for the first time. Schooling admits that he almost threw in the towel many times, often calling his parents and asking to come home.

“It was a hard journey ... you’re 13 or 14, in a different part of the world by yourself,” said Schooling in an interview with TODAY in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where the swimmer is currently based for a training camp with the national team.

“I wasn’t mature enough, I wasn’t ready (to be on my own). But I was tossed the gauntlet, and it was a necessary evil.

“Bolles was not an evil place, but in eighth grade I hated everything.”

Coach Sergio Lopez remembers the misery his young charge was in, as he told TODAY: “He had a very hard time adapting, it was tough to take him from his parents, you have a helper, a driver, and you go to a place that’s totally different, do your own laundry in a sketchy dryer, share a small room with a roommate.”

But the youngster dug in and hung on, determined to follow his dreams of becoming a champion. Added Schooling, now a sophomore at the University of Texas: “I knew for a fact that I would question myself and ask what if I had stayed?

“On hindsight, it was the best decision I ever made in my life and it’s made me who and what I am today.”


Schooling’s debut at the 2012 Olympic Games was expected to be his springboard into the international stage — the then-17 year old was pipped for a spectacular splash in London after a 2011 season which saw him winning two gold medals and breaking two regional records at the Indonesia South-east Asian Games. He also bettered Phelps’ age group (15-16 years) record in the 100 yards butterfly short course at the US Short-Course Junior National Championships.

But misfortune struck in London, as Schooling found himself caught in a swim cap and goggles bungle-up just minutes before his 200m butterfly heat after the equipment was rejected for failing to meet Olympic regulations. Thrown off his game, he did not qualify for the semis after clocking 1min 59.18sec, and also eventually fizzled out in the 100m fly heats.

Four years after that disastrous outing, Schooling is ready to erase the hurt from his London debut. “London 2012 was my biggest a 16 year old, jumping from the SEA Games to Olympics these were some pretty big odds,” he said.

“I thought I was strong enough to pull it off and make the final. But the reality was that I wasn’t at all (ready) and that was a huge reality check for me.

“But I’m glad that I went through that because nothing fazes me now. I’m a lot bigger muscle-wise, stronger, more experienced, and I’ve proved to myself that I can race at the highest level and be in the mix.”

The life of an elite athlete is also often a painful one comprising lap after explosive lap in the pool, and hours in the gym building a stronger, fitter body.

Schooling says he has learnt to enjoy the pain, waking up at 5am in the morning in Texas, clocking in 5,000 to 7,000 metres in the pool each training session, while spending hours on dry land training and in the gym. He added: “The most pain I feel is waking up in the cold in the morning at 5am and jumping into an even colder pool. But I like the hurt, because it means I’m getting better.

“Right now I’m done with practice, getting broken’re just training harder and harder and your body’s recovery can’t keep up. I’m going to be tapering about two to three weeks from now. I just want to rest, and explode at the Olympic Games.”


Big Macs, soda drinks, French fries and desserts have been banished from his diet ahead of the Rio Games, as Schooling slogs to get his 1.84m, 74kg body in the best physical shape possible for the big meet in August.

His mother May Schooling had also moved to his apartment in Texas to help him prepare for the Games, including cooking healthy meals for the swimmer.

Now leaner and fitter, Schooling said: “It’s all about eating right, sleeping earlier, in the past I thought I could sleep four hours and go for practice.

“But if you want to go further you’ve got to do things differently. I’m cutting out fast food as best as I can and I’ve not eaten a Big Mac in two months.”

In order to go faster and longer, Schooling also worked with Longhorns coach Eddie Reese on a stronger kick, by lifting weights with his legs, and made changes to his breathing and turns to shave precious hundreds of a second off his times.


He claimed the biggest scalp of his career at the Longhorn Aquatics Elite Invite earlier this month, shocking world record holder Phelps - who is also his childhood idol - in the 100m fly with a gold medal swim of 51.58sec.

His time also puts him joint-seventh in FINA’s world rankings for 2016, with European champion Laszlo Cseh of Hungary (50.86s), Konrad Czerniak of Poland (51.22s) and China’s Li Zhuhao (51.24s) ranked in the top three.

News of Schooling’s triumph over the greatest Olympian of all time had set the sporting fraternity abuzz, but he insists that it’s not “as big a deal”.

“It’s always nice beating Michael but I don’t think that’s as big a deal as other people think.

“We were both tired, we were both in different spots, Michael was getting ready for (United States national) trials, I still had more training to do.

“It’s always nice beating the best Olympian alive, and ever, but did it have any effect on my going to Rio? I say maybe half a percent or one per cent, all it did was show other people what I knew I could do.”

With Phelps conquered, Schooling is fired up to take on his other rivals in his hunt for gold medal glory in Rio.

He is known as a fierce competitor in the pool, and not one to back down from any challenge. In fact, Schooling loves a good fight.

“Everyone is saying Michael, Chad (Le Clos), Laszlo Cseh are the favourites - some people will throw my name in the mix,” he said.

“I draw inspiration and motivation from that, it’s like wow you’re counting me out, you don’t know my ability or doubting me. And I hate that. I’m going to go out there and try even harder and prove them wrong.”

Lopez has every faith in his former charge’s abilities, and he added: “Right now he has had enough experience with world championships, Olympic Games, races with world class athletes that he feels at home.

“Joseph is as good as anyone there, at the right place, right time, he has no fear.”


His journey to the 2016 Olympic Games began as a young boy in Bolles School, a journey that has seen him log in thousands of laps in the pool, hours in the gym, as he suffers to perfect his craft.

He admits that he would not be the world-beater he is today if he had stayed in his comfort zone in Singapore, and Schooling added: “When I was in eighth grade they (Singapore Swimming Association) disbanded the Centre of Excellence and there was no one to push me and it wasn’t conducive for high performance. I would have been good, but I would have never been great. Coming to the US was my chance to set myself up to be something special.”

“I’ve been through a lot, and it’s my turn to do things at the world stage, Olympic level. I’ve grown a lot, matured a lot, and I’m ready.”

He may have been feted the “special one” by supporters back home, but the young swimmer insists that he is not the finished product.

“I will never consider myself special as long as I’m still swimming,” he said. “When I accomplish all the things I want to accomplish - win an Olympic gold, break world records, I still don’t think I’ll be special.

“I want to think I’m a normal kid so I can keep working hard. Maybe when I’m 35 or 40, when I stop swimming, I will slowly start to appreciate what I’ve done.”

Ahead of the Olympic Games in August, TODAY is spending a week with the Team Singapore swim team in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as the Republic’s top swimmers prepare for Rio. 

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