“Go, go, go, go, go.”
The words, uttered midway through the 100m butterfly final last night, are like a repeated plea, an echoing prayer, a desperate exhortation. Amid the bedlam, semi-covered by a liquid curtain as he scythes across a pool, Joseph Schooling probably can’t hear May Schooling in Incheon.
But never tell a mother that.
May is sitting in Block F2, Row 1, Seat 6. Five seats away is her silver-haired husband, Colin. In the middle is me. Their son, chasing a first Asian Games gold, is going to be in the water for roughly 52 seconds and then everyone will judge him. Brilliant and historic if he wins; a disappointment and failure if he loses. Only May and Colin don’t judge or change. Love is never hostage to results.
But, of course, they want him to win because he’s an athlete, it’s his life. Colin, usually a charming conversationalist, is muted this evening, silenced by stress. “I just hope and pray he wins,” he mutters. Win because he and May have seen Joseph’s hard work, his pain, his dreaming. Win because losing crushes young men and wraps them in despair and, dammit, this is their boy.
Joseph arrives on the pool deck clad in a long, red parka. He adjusts his goggles; May waves, he knows where she is. She carries no lucky amulet, nor does she mumble an auspicious mantra.
“I don’t rely on charm and superstition. I just believe in my son. It’s what I tell him, believe in yourself.”
Joseph is learning to believe. Not just that he can win, but that he’s a world-class athlete and it’s a weight that takes a while to bear. Learning that the world will be harsh when he loses but that he can’t control opinion, only his talent. Learning that there is no perfect in sport – even at this meet his right shoulder is a bit numb – and you have to win regardless.
Right now he’s surging through the water while his father is a sphinx on land. Colin has a clipboard on his lap and in perfectly neat columns has listed Joseph’s races, his personal best and the current Asian record. Then, dutifully, he jots down split times and reaction times and if this is a devoted, organised father, it’s also you suspect a father who needs to keep his fingers too busy to shake.
Colin knows Joseph needs this race. Joseph knows he needs this gold medal. It’s about time. And it doesn’t matter in what time. Forget records, forget personal bests, this night Joseph doesn’t need to be faster than he’s ever been but just faster than everyone else. Later he says: “I didn’t really see the Games record. Just saw No. 1 beside my name. Record or no record I just want to win.”
Because it’s what world-class athletes have to do. Because they spend thousands of kilometres polishing technique in liquid, and figuring how to wear pressure, and sculpting bodies, but then you have to test those teachings in front of the world. Michael Jordan, who seemed to exist only to win, said: “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.”
Excellence just has to speak for itself. Right now. This night.
May and Colin sit among a clutch of Singapore swimming parents, a wondrous, patient, sacrificing tribe bound together by early wake-up calls. The Schoolings didn’t make it to the Commonwealth Games as no competition tickets were to be found, yet here they are, first row, as close to the pool as their boy is to victory.
Twenty metres or so are left. May is on her feet. Colin hasn’t moved. And then it’s just too much for him, this moment, this kid of his finally on the cusp of Asian victory, this need to figuratively hold his boy’s hand and will him on, and so he abruptly rises and with a voice swollen with emotion, he shouts:
Joseph goes. Joseph wins.
“Yes,” says Colin and grins in clear relief. “That’s what I am talking about.”
One day, years from now, this gold medal will perhaps be lost in a tangle of a hundred medallion ribbons. One day, maybe Joseph won’t remember his timing for his life will be defined by faster ones. Yet he’ll never forget this day for what it symbolised: Not a start of a journey nor an end, but one further destination reached towards a greatness he chases.
There are races to come still, medals to win, defeats to be worn, ambitions to be enlarged, heavier expectations to wear, yet for Joseph there will be only one constant. May and Colin. By the poolside. Shouting, taking notes, waiting, hoping, believing.
Of this night, one last memory lingers. May, with a smile like a watermelon slice, turning to take a photograph of the big screen when it lists the official results.
1. Joseph Isaac Schooling.
Her boy. Who’s done real good.