The day Singaporeans wore a collective grin

Until the morning of Aug 13, 2016, Olympic gold was for foreigners. A boy from Bedok changed the narrative.

It is only appropriate that a boy who exists to knife his way through water should sleep under the poster of a very large fish. On the wall of Joseph Schooling's bedroom in Singapore is a photograph of a great white shark rising from the deep. If you think about it, it's an interesting metaphor for Schooling, whose favourite stroke is called the butterfly but who rose from the waters to figuratively devour his peers in the Brazilian beach city of Rio de Janeiro on a stunning night in Aug 2016.

On superficial examination, Schooling hardly appears ferocious. He has an effortless grin, a courteous manner and a relaxed boyishness, and wears confidence like a fitted jacket. Except if you peel back his nonchalance, that's where you find the shark: the child who threw tantrums when he lost has become a competitor unapologetically devoted to winning. This is a hunter of medals and also of a place in history. What else are champions but predators of a sort?

Yet few in Singapore believed that an athlete of such quality could emerge from their shores. No proof of such skill existed, no evidence was available. It is why Schooling's Olympic victory in an Olympic record time of 50.39 seconds in the 100m butterfly did not just surprise, it stunned. Here was a creation beyond Singapore's comprehension. This nation could construct a vibrant city, compose beautiful gardens, create a deeply honest system, build a sterling airport, but the Olympic champion was a foreign idea.

Until Schooling's victory, this champion lived in other lands, he was found only on television sets, he was tall and muscular and walked with confidence. Except now, incredibly, the champion was here, bred in Bedok, just another Singaporean and yet unlike any Singaporean. Many fans, for instance, might have viewed American swimmer Michael Phelps as a superhero with fins who should have his own Marvel comic; Schooling saw the most decorated Olympian as a great man of the water but only a man. He told Singaporeans what they theoretically knew but practically had no proof of: everyone is beatable in sport. Even by a Singaporean.

What Schooling - building on the work done by sailors and bowlers and even silat practitioners and a windsurfer - has given Singapore is faith, he has let his fellow citizens believe in their possibility as a sporting people. It involves labour and sacrifice and ambition but also creativity: racing, after all, is a bold and brave articulation of the full self.

No doubt his talent was polished for years in America by fine coaches amidst intense competition, but the raw material was local. Never again will his nation say "cannot" at the Olympics because he proved it "can".

Schooling composing himself before training at the University of Texas in Austin last October. He will finish his studies there in 2018.

It doesn't mean that Singapore will suddenly produce a factory of Olympic champions but it is about sending a message. Greatness is built from coaches, opportunity, culture, science, high performance, but also from self-belief. This is Schooling's gift to Singapore and how large a gift it is still cannot be fathomed. Only 20 years from now, perhaps, will this nation understand the ambitions he ignited in 2016; only 20 years from now, perhaps, will another kid tell us that he saw Schooling, a flesh-and-blood Singaporean, in Rio, and thought to himself, "so can I".

If painters have a feel for colour, Schooling was a prodigy with a feel for water. In it he found - and still does find - the finest expression of his restless talent. To go fast is his calling, to win is his purpose. But few prodigies translate their precocious potential into deeds because the road to excellence is uneven. Obstacles rise, talent erodes, willpower ebbs, funds dry up. But Schooling and his family swam long against the tide.

They were confronted with the sporting disadvantages of a small nation with an academic focus; they wondered about national service; they realised America would be costly and lonely; they appreciated that success was no guarantee. Yet as Schooling's ambition never wavered, neither did his parents' devotion to him. One person swims, but an entire family dreams and dares.

Athletes are often reluctant to step outside their shores to live and train, comforted instead by the familiarity of home and food and intimidated by the outside world. But sometimes the big fish in the small pond only goes around in circles; sometimes you have to be chased by bigger fish in foreign ponds to go forward. This is what Schooling's parents realised, prompting them to enrol him in a school in America at 14. In doing so, they reminded Singaporeans that no sporting ambition is realised without risk taken, bravery shown and, of course, sweat given.

The truth of sport is that we only see the athlete's final work at a Games, yet not his daily labour at training. We never see the pain and the persistence, the dejection and the frustration, the weights lifted and the muscles complaining, the tired body and the cold water it must dive into. Again and again and again.

And so all that people really saw of Schooling was at competition. Even so, every year he seemed to inch forward. The more metres he swam, the fractionally quicker he became.

In 2011, he won two Southeast Asian Games golds, in 2013, it was six, in 2015, it was nine. In 2014, he won a Commonwealth Games silver and an Asian Games gold and in 2015, it was a world championship bronze. In a profession rife with opinions, Schooling was offering us indisputable facts of his progress.

Yet for all this evidence of talent, the Olympic Games was a different proposal because Olympic gold has a different heft. This Games' challenge is psychological for you race familiar foes but you do so in an environment where everything is heightened.

The media glare is harsher, the audience larger, the nationalism fiercer, the expectation more intense, the pressure crushing, the emotions sharper. Amidst all this the Olympics asks, now find your best.

It was even harder for Schooling because he, uniquely in the final, was confronted by a staggering history. In the seven other lanes were swimmers from Russia, China, the United States, France, South Africa, Hungary, nations who together had won over 250 Olympic golds just in swimming. Singapore had not won a single gold in any sport.

Schooling had no proof it could be done, nor any role model to follow. As he likes to say: "The first guy through the wall is always bloody." Making history takes nerve and also a little and necessary conceit. Schooling didn't have footprints to walk in and so he simply decided to leave behind his own for everyone else.

In Singapore, it was 9.12am on Aug 13 when Schooling swam.

By 9.13am, grown men were weeping and grey-haired ladies yelling and surely at least one child was demanding that her parents enrol her for swimming lessons.

Of course, this was only sport and no life had been risked here as firemen do nor had the world's troubles been washed away by a race in water.

And yet sport cannot be underestimated for almost no other profession allows nations such a moment of incandescent happiness; such an instant where millions wear a collective grin; such a day when cynicism, even if temporarily, is trampled on; such a week when we embrace a homecoming man and do not see his religion, his race, his colour but only his human skill.

As Schooling banged his fists into the water in Rio, a boy who grew up with a photograph of a fish had given his nation a picture of himself to keep. Singaporeans won't necessarily put it on their walls, but they might carry it in their heads. It will remind them forever that they were witness to something rare.

They got to see a life transformed. They got to share the greatest day of a young Singaporean's life with him. They got to be part of his story.

• From the prologue of Schooling Joseph, an official biography by Straits Times senior correspondent Rohit Brijnath and former Straits Times sports journalist Chan U-Gene.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 'The day Singaporeans wore a collective grin'. Print Edition | Subscribe