Chat made Games dream fly

Chat made Games dream fly
Profile of Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling at the Munhak Park Taehwan Aquatics Center.

Close to two decades ago, in a Vietnamese restaurant in Perth, the seeds of Joseph Schooling's Olympic dreams were sown.

The date is unclear but it was most likely some time in 1996 or 1997. Joseph, who was only a toddler, cannot recall much. Parents Colin and May remember only bits and pieces. But all three share the belief that the dream began when Joseph's grand-uncle Lloyd Valberg, Singapore's first Olympian in the 1948 Olympics (high jump), pulled him aside for a short chat, not too long before his death at age 74 in March 1997.

Said May, 59, "Joseph knew from a young age that he wanted to go to the Olympics, and I think it started from that conversation with his grand-uncle Lloyd.

"But when a kid comes to you and says he wants to go to the Olympics, you think, okay," his mum said, rolling her eyes.

But no one was rolling his eyes at Incheon this month when Joseph finished his maiden Asiad with one gold (100m butterfly), one silver (50m fly) and one bronze (200m fly), taking a big step towards his dream of a podium finish at the 2016 Olympics.

But for the University of Texas freshman, who has now won Commonwealth and Asian Games medals, the arduous road towards conquering the world stage is only just beginning.

Putting this in context, his best times this year in the 50m (23.43sec) and 100m (51.69sec) are 15th and eighth best in the world, while his 200m fly is 52nd, suggesting he is still far from the finished product. His coach in Bolles School (Florida), Sergio Lopez, said Joseph needs to take his training to a higher level in order to star in 2016.

And Lopez believes that is exactly what he will get under former United States Olympic (2004 and 2008) men's swimming team head coach Eddie Reese in Texas.

Said Lopez, an Olympic bronze medallist for Spain,

"We haven't done weights for him at Bolles so he should probably do Olympic lifts and other land exercises that will give him more speed, power and explosiveness."

Olympic-style weightlifting targets the fast-twitch muscle fibres in the body and improves an athlete's speed, flexibility and strength. Added Lopez: "But he's going to do a little bit of everything - turns, underwater kicks, endurance, by doing more events and general conditioning, because his body is going to change and he'll have to keep adjusting.

"He's strong now but you'll see a big change in his physique next year (at the SEA Games). "He's going to be stronger." In a sport of fine margins, physique certainly plays a part. China's Shi Yang, 25, who beat Joseph in the 50m fly, is 2cm taller at 1.86m and 7kg bulkier at 83kg.

As for the Singaporean, while his sights are set on a dream he has held for as long as he can remember, there is little doubt about who played the biggest role in his emergence as one of Asia's top swim stars.

"Without my parents, I wouldn't be here at all. If they didn't support me, or were not 100 per cent with me, this would never have happened," he said.

In 2008, when the Singapore Swimming Association shut down its Centre of Excellence (COE), Colin was convinced by ex-COE coach Jack Simon that the US was where Joseph's Olympic dream lay. The Schoolings, who had to bear his school fees, expenses, transport and accommodation costs, took a leap of faith in 2009 and sent their only child abroad. Colin, a 66-year-old businessman, estimates spending nearly US$1 million (S$1.26 million) on Joseph.

That apart, there is also the heart-wrenching reality of being separated from their boy, only 14 at the time. On average, the trio are together for only about three weeks a year.

Said May, a tennis player for Perak state: "At first, I didn't want him to go. But he told me 'Mum, if I am to get an Olympic gold medal, I have to go'. "Grudgingly, I let him go but it was a painful decision."

Added Colin, a hurdler and water polo player who represented Singapore in softball,

"Our ties are strong, we did this as a team because we love our son so much. "We are all supportive of each other, and from day one, it was all about realising his dream."

Now that the Asiad is over, Joseph will embark on the next phase of his journey. It will be harder because with one Olympics, one World Championships, one Commonwealth Games, one Asian Games and two SEA Games under his belt, he is now a marked man, not a new kid on the block with nothing to lose. But at least one thing will not change - the unconditional parental support that has brought him this far on the journey.


This article was first published on September 28, 2014.
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