All champions but Jo's got the edge

At the table of excellence and promise, of youth and yet of history, they sat. Samantha Yom, Bernie Chin and Aloysius Yapp, champions of the Youth Olympics and of a junior world. Two nominees were absent - as if to demonstrate that sport never stops for awards - but Jazreel Tan and Joseph Schooling were represented in spirit, in videos and by their families. All of them arrived here not for a contest but in fact a celebration of their feats, but still there was a trophy to be won and winning is what they do.

In the end, the trophy would go to the missing man, who probably spent his morning inhaling chlorine and fighting a clock in his Texas pool. Joseph Schooling is The Straits Times Athlete of the Year, but by a fingernail. In a year of exceptionalism by Singaporeans, he was just a trifle more exceptional. One might say it was a day no one was diminished yet one athlete elevated.

Nine judges - administrators, former athletes, journalists - voted on the award in a small room, through lunch and with much food for thought. Separating greatness, when athletes are not in effect playing each other, is a subjective exercise. Notably when some athletes have greater access to funding and exposure. Especially when they come from land and water. Particularly when one uses a cue stick to hit balls and another uses a bowling ball to hit pins, when two steer through water with sails and another navigates waters with his human fins.

Here, in these nominees, was a triumph of individualism and yet a collective victory for Singapore. What was reassuring was the width of sports they represented, what was fascinating was the sheer youthfulness of their tribe: the sailors 15, the pool player 18, the swimmer 19, the bowler 24; what was formidable was the adversity they fought.

Bernie's first Youth Olympics race ended in 21st position, Yapp was down 1-5 in his pool final, Tan was medal-less in her last Asian Games, Samantha tried martial arts to find aggression and Schooling was last and second-last in his first two major finals at the Commonwealth Games. To triumph, each of them had to first fight, and win, the championship of themselves and they did. And if at the heart of our award is not just performance but a wrapping of inspiration then each delivered it.

But Schooling is a slightly different athletic beast because he is measured by a slightly different yardstick. His vast talent is a gift yet it is also a curse for it brings with it a constantly inflating expectation. Every time he wins a medal, we want a heftier one of a better colour; every time he goes quick, we wait for faster; every time he does his best, we want better.

In 2013, he won six SEA Games golds in six events and yet did not win our award. It's not merely that we found a superior candidate, it's that beating South-east Asia wasn't quite enough. This, unfairly or not, is an athlete from whom we expect the world.

This is pressure. Being the most lauded, scrutinised, dissected, watched and written-about athlete in Singapore is pressure. Being a mere boy whose every act - from fit of swimming cap to deferment of national service to a night out after competition was done - is the focus of national opinion, is pressure. Yet within that pressure he has to always demonstrate that he is worthy of the hype he doesn't create. Always he has to show improvement. Always he has to impress.

Always, in 2014 he did.

And he did so in a sport which has a deep, international pool, flooded with talent from various geographies. At just the 2012 London Olympics, champions were found from Tunisia to China, from South Africa to Hungary. In this sport, at a senior level, under pressure, in front of cameras, fighting his nerves, he asserted his evolving brilliance.

First Singaporean swimmer of any sex to win a Commonwealth Games silver. First Singaporean swimming male to win an Asian Games gold in 32 years and a silver and bronze, too. First Singaporean to do this in an era when Asia has won 36 swimming medals at the last two Olympics.

To transfer talent into performance (he also set three individual national records), to take imagined greatness and make it real, not just in one Games but then another, not just in one month but also the next, that is something. Here was a boy's belief, married to technique, allied with strength, merged with hunger and fused with work ethic. Eventually, with Schooling, his excellence has become our inspiration.

The swimmer won seven of the nine judges' votes, but the margin does not adequately reflect the closeness of the debate. Eventually, like victory of any sort, it was decided by the little things that tilt both a race and an argument. The swimmer just touched first. But, as with awards as opposed to titles, one might say the rest were undefeated.

rohitb@sph.com.sg