In an exceptional pool, Schooling tries to find his way

The finest contest in sport this month isn't Mourinho the Mouth versus The World but Katie Ledecky against the Red Line. The American is a freestyler whose chemistry with water is so incredible she can turn it into gold.

The Red Line is the world record mark that flits across your TV screen. In two years, Ledecky, 18, has beaten the Red Line nine times. The last time was Tuesday at the world championships. Her new 1,500m freestyle record is 15min 25.48sec. The fastest man at this year's SEA Games timed 15.31.03.

Ledecky didn't have to break the 1,500m world record in the final. First, she already owned it. Second, she was so far ahead she could have got out, made dinner plans, got back in and won gold. Third, 30 minutes after the 30 fast lengths of the 1,500m was her 200m freestyle semis and so a little coasting was acceptable. Yet she made a commitment to her craft, she took that tired phrase "I want to be the best I can" and gave it inspired life. So first a world record, then a qualification.

Ledecky is part of a pool of astonishing water people, a congregation of almost geniuses and total masochists. There are high-divers who tumble from 27m with three scuba divers waiting for them at the bottom. There are workhorses who slog 8-10 hours every day like 200m individual medley world record holder Katinka Hosszu. There are entire gangs of Gullivers, led by 50m butterfly champion Florent Manaudou, who has a neck like a tree-stump and surely bench-presses small cars.

Schooling is immersed in a liquid examination that is uncommonly stern. In the 100m butterfly, which he swims tomorrow, the fastest time this year is 51.37. The 33rd-fastest time is 52.37. In short, inside a single second are 33 competitors; in truth, Schooling is not the only one desperate to impress.

It is to this environment of brilliance, freakishness and sturdiness that Joseph Schooling comes. He is fast and driven but he is still learning his craft. You cannot expedite excellence, you cannot rush the building of a body and a technique. Yet all this week the word "medal" has been whispered about.

We talk of a Schooling medal as if, well, it's inevitable; his coach talks of it, one senses, to placate relentless inquiries because how can he say there's no chance of a medal; even Schooling talks of it as if to not talk of a medal would be construed as unambitious.

Headlines, even in this paper, read "No medal but..." and it seemed to imply a medal was very possible, that somehow he had not taken his chance, that therefore he had not met expectation. But Schooling's best times this year prior to the worlds ranked him at 16th (50m butterfly), 23rd (100m butterfly) and 12th (200m butterfly). It is a long way from third.

To talk of a medal is to distract from the process which is to go faster - and he has. Last year he was faster than anyone at the Asian Games in the 100m butterfly. This week he was faster than any Asian has gone in the 50m butterfly. Ranked 16th, he finished seventh in Kazan. It was worth a celebration without a but.

That Schooling shone in the 50m - not so in the 200m butterfly - is impressive for it came two months after nine SEA Games finals, plus heats, in a home Games. It has to be stressful. Not just for the body but the mind too. Euphoria is tiring and expectation is exhausting.

The SEA Games were his pleasure but it also became his patriotic duty to pad up a medal tally. But is the value of nine golds greater than a single world championship bronze? Which one are we investing in? Which one signifies the excellence we chase? To beat the best a man cannot be anything but his best.

Whether the SEA Games have even marginally affected his worlds I do not know but it is worth honest inquiry. After all, we have to think of Schooling as an experiment, a brilliant lab rat we should learn everything from as we try as a small nation to find an elusive greatness.

Of course, this is sport, there are no free passes eventually, no excuses. Swimming deals with cold numbers and either you are fast enough or not, either you win that circular piece of metal or you can't. The clock doesn't lie, but the calendar tells us Schooling still has time.

In the 50m fly final he was the youngest man at 20 (the winner Manaudou is 24, second place Nicholas Santos is 35, third place Laszlo Cseh is 29). In the 200m butterfly, where he finished 10th in the semis, eight of those faster than him were older. One day Schooling's reckoning will come but that day is some distance away.

Till then he's immersed in a liquid examination that is uncommonly stern. In the 100m butterfly, which he swims tomorrow, the fastest time this year is 51.37. The 33rd-fastest time is 52.37. In short, inside a single second are 33 competitors; in truth, Schooling is not the only one desperate to impress.

Ranked 23rd in the 100m butterfly, he logically shouldn't even make the semi-finals. If he does, it's impressive; if he makes the final, it's remarkable; if he wins a ... No, I am not saying it. Our desperation cannot become his pressure; our need to be sportingly relevant should not be his burden. If we fixate on the summit we might forget to delight in every step and stumble a young man makes towards it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2015, with the headline 'In an exceptional pool, Schooling tries to find his way'. Print Edition | Subscribe