NOMINEE #2 JOSEPH SCHOOLING (SWIMMING)

Every practice like a final

Singapore's top male swimmer Joseph Schooling is pushed to the limits daily, during training with other talented youngsters in Austin, Texas.
Singapore's top male swimmer Joseph Schooling is pushed to the limits daily, during training with other talented youngsters in Austin, Texas.PHOTO: MOVING BITS

Bulked-up Asiad champ smarter and stronger, ready for SEA Games assault

JOSEPH Schooling is aching. Singapore's swim king sits with his head bowed and eyes closed, a large ice-pack strapped across his shoulder. Sweat drips down his forehead, despite the wintery conditions outside the University of Texas at Austin's sprawling swimming centre.

He sucks in a deep breath and reflects on a typical day of practice in the United States' top college aquatics programme, whose alumni include seven-time Olympic medallist Aaron Peirsol.

"Every training session feels like the final of a major competition," the 19-year-old said when The Straits Times visited him last week. "Everyone gets on each other. You want other guys to do better and, by doing that, you push yourself too."

An Asian Games champion and eight-time SEA Games gold medallist, Schooling finds himself surrounded by similarly prodigious talents.

Earlier this year, he rewrote the school mark in the 200-yard butterfly at 1min 41.00 sec - the nation's fastest time in the event. Weeks later, team-mate Jack Conger, 20, went quicker in 1:40.34.

Schooling's gold medal-winning 100m fly time at the Asiad - 51.69 - had placed him ninth- fastest in the world. Not to be outdone, Conger clocked 51.64 at last month's USA Swimming Arena Pro Swim Series.

Yet, the heated rivalry in the water breathes a warm friendship on land. "I don't hold grudges outside the pool - Jack is one of my best friends here," said Schooling, who enrolled last August after graduating from the Bolles School in Florida. "I need someone like him to keep me on my toes."

The Texas Longhorns swim team are a self-described "band of brothers", meeting after school to watch movies, chill out at one of the city's many idyllic parks or simply watch the people go by at the local Starbucks cafe.

For Schooling, who has no siblings, they fill the void of being multiple time zones away from his parents and childhood friends.

"I still miss Singapore food though - that's something no one here can replace," the former Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) student said with a chuckle.

A stellar 2014 - besides the Asiad gold, he became the Republic's first Commonwealth Games swimming medallist, clinching a silver in the 100m fly in Glasgow - has earned him a nomination for the Straits Times Athlete of the Year.

Yet, he is not one to sit back and soak up the plaudits. Backed by daily gym sessions, he has bulked up 3kg to 78kg, while his body fat has dipped from 11 per cent to 9 per cent.

The meaner physique has its advantages in the pool. Under coach Eddie Reese, the youngster has worked on refining the art of turning at the wall. "It used to be my biggest problem, because I got my feet up too slow," noted Schooling. "Now I can get them up faster, thrust my head down, and throw my hips towards the wall like Eddie wants me to."

Based on his performance in training, Reese is confident his charge can break the 51sec barrier in the 100m fly this year.

"Joseph is as talented in the fly as anyone we have ever had," said the 73-year-old, who helmed the US Olympic team in 2004 and 2008. "For him to get better, it's a bunch of little things like breathing and break-outs because his fundamentals are so strong."

College life for Schooling, who lives in a freshman dormitory on campus, means waking up at 5am, with two training sessions bookmarking classes, self-study periods and Skype chats with his parents Colin and May.

One thing has not changed - his appetite for success, even as he knows all eyes will be on him at the SEA Games on home soil in June, followed by July's Fina World Championships in Russia.

"If I miss my target, everyone's going to be like, 'Joseph missed his target'," he said wryly. "What I know for sure is I'm a smarter and stronger swimmer than two years ago.

"If this means more medals for Singapore and doing my family proud, then all the aches would have been worth it."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg