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Leonard Thomas
Friday, Aug 1, 2014

Sports, Asian Opinions

C'wealth Games: Schooling lifts a nation

The New Paper | Leonard Thomas | Friday, Aug 1, 2014

Joseph Schooling makes history by winning a silver medal, the first ever medal in swimming at the Commonwealth Games, in the 100m butterfly at the Tollcross International Swimming Centre on 28 July 2014.

Comment

If we are Singaporean, we should walk with our heads held a little higher today because he hit the Longines pad and triggered a time of 51.69sec on the scoreboard.

If it was just talk before, then the furious finish and the record time next to his name confirmed one of our own as a world-beating swimmer.

Joseph Schooling has officially joined a small and elite band.

It is so rare that a Singaporean gains entry into such a group as our tiny nation continues to fight to turn sport back into a part of its DNA, and we all will feel a little surer about the strategy to pull off the mission after his landmark performance in the men's 100m butterfly final at the Commonwealth Games.

Breakthroughs in sport wield such power and Schooling has just become the first Singaporean swimmer to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games, where he finished second to world star Chad le Clos of South Africa in Glasgow.

It was still pitch dark here yesterday morning when he burst off the blocks and I daresay not many were watching in Singapore. There was still precious sleep time to enjoy and the 19-year-old had flattered to deceive in two previous finals in Glasgow.

This time he stayed in line with the leading pack in the first 50m and when he turned in second spot, there was a sense the teenager was not going to let it slip.

Chasing redemption, history and an official ratification of his mission for Olympic gold in 2016, Schooling grew even stronger in the closing lap to ensure the Singapore flag would finally be raised at the Tollcross Swimming Centre, where swimming remains a world-class competition.

He broke the national record - rewriting his old mark of 24.06 - with a time of 23.43 in the 50m fly heats but flunked in the final.

He set another national mark when he led off the 4x100m freestyle unit and posted a lap time of 50.05s .

He raised the excitement level in his pet event, the 200m fly, when he qualified smoothly for the final but finished last in the end, hardly threatening his national record of 1min 56.27sec.

Schooling was not justifying the hype, some complained, maybe this was another Singaporean with talent but without the steel to take the heat reserved for world-class contests.

Mettle

Talent alone is never enough, because championship mettle is always a crucial ingredient that propels an athlete to the top.

It requires will, focus and confidence to bounce back within the space of 48 hours and Schooling rose to the challenge.

He broke his own national record (52.33) with a time of 52.22 in the heats of the 100m fly and lowered it further in his final swim and issue the message that he is the genuine article.

The Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) has provided Schooling with support over the last few years.

Last year, the Ministry of Defence was presented with a detailed plan of Schooling's training programme and targets up to the Rio Olympics in 2016 and gave the athlete the green light to defer from National Service until August 2016.

Eyebrows were raised because for years sport had never seemed that important to Singapore, but the decision suggested the country was serious about the mission to become a rugged society.

And in quite emphatic fashion Schooling has just shown he is making tracks. Many pitfalls remain.

He is about to join the University of Texas and will be guided by a new coach.

As he begins to make a name for himself, there will be distractions aplenty and a target on his back.

New young rivals will emerge and one old one, the biggest name of all in the world of swimming, will likely be contending again in Rio.

But Singapore's young swimming star has shown he has the talent and courage to mix it with the big boys and I believe he will cherish going up against the likes of Michael Phelps.

First, though, he has more winning and confidence-building work to undertake at the Asian Games in September in Incheon, South Korea.

Excitement continues to slowly build in Singapore sport.

At the 2008 Games in Beijing, Tao Li made a spectacular splash when she became the first Singaporean to qualify for an Olympic final, finishing fifth in the women's 100m fly.

Our women's table tennis team won Olympic silver in Beijing and bagged two bronze medals four years later in London.

Sandwiched between those two feats, the team pulled off one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of Singapore sport when they felled mighty China at the world championships in 2010.

Talented athletes today receive SpexScholarships which support their drive to realise their potential.

The Singapore Sports Hub is open for business.

Martina Veloso, a 14-year-old shooter, could well be destined for great things.

And Schooling's march gives us all a proud lift.

leonardt@sph.com.sg

This article was published on July 30 in The New Paper.

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