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Winner: Joseph Schooling

ST Athlete of the Year: Evolution of the Singapore Flyer

NCAA title defence next on his radar, but Phelps' 100m world record is ultimate aim

Three years ago at the Tollcross International Swimming Centre in Glasgow, Singapore's first Olympic champion underwent the final stages of his evolution from boy wonder to world-beater.

Joseph Schooling, then 19 and without a major swimming medal to his name, entered the 2014 Commonwealth Games 200m butterfly final as a medal hopeful.

He finished last, more than a second behind the closest swimmer. But it was the last time Schooling would allow himself to fail so spectacularly.

Reflecting on that episode, the 21-year-old revealed yesterday: "I just wasn't focused enough because I was affected by the earlier races. I learnt that sometimes you just have to put your feelings aside and roll with it.

"It is important to know that one bad race doesn't mean anything, it doesn't mean you're going to have a bad meet."

Two days after the 200m final, a different Schooling, one Singaporeans have since got used to seeing, returned to the pool deck for the 100m fly final. A silver medal, Singapore's first swimming prize at the Commonwealth Games, and a national record followed. The rest, as they say, is history.

It was like something had clicked. Medals and records followed and personal best times ensued.

The upswing culminated at the Rio Olympics last August, when Schooling won Singapore's first Olympic gold medal.

Surrounded by familiar rivals Chad le Clos, Laszlo Cseh and the man he looked up to as a boy, American great Michael Phelps, in the 100m fly final, the University of Texas student blew them out of the water in a Games-record 50.39sec.

The trail-blazing feat saw him win his second The Straits Times Athlete of the Year title, making him the award's first repeat winner.

ST sports editor Lee Yulin, who headed the 2016 award's nine-member judging panel, said: "While this is a very strong cohort of nominees, Joseph was the obvious choice. His Olympic gold medal is a major breakthrough for Singapore's sporting landscape, for it shows that someone born and bred here can become a winner at sport's highest level."

There is no cap on greatness and 189 days after his Olympic feat, Schooling is already immersing himself in the next lap.

"I am glad that I was able to achieve my lifelong dream at a young age but I can't be satisfied with just that.

"Imagine if Michael Phelps was happy to retire after one Olympics," he said.

Defending his 100- and 200-yard butterfly titles at next month's National Collegiate Athletic Association swimming championships is the priority for now.

The bigger test, though, will come at July's world championships in Budapest, where le Clos and Cseh will be looking for revenge.

Schooling, though, is looking ahead as he guns for Phelps' world record of 49.82sec set in 2009, when supersuits were allowed. "I will need to get the gold medal in the 100m butterfly but my main target is to break the 100m butterfly world record," he said.

More than two years on from Glasgow and now evolved into the sport's monarch butterfly, it would take a brave man to bet against Schooling doing just that.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2017, with the headline 'Evolution of the Singapore flyer'. Print Edition | Subscribe