Joseph Schooling: From unknown to regional star

Joseph Schooling celebrating his win in the men’s 200m butterfly at the SEA Games in Indonesia last November. He broke the Games record with a time of 1min 56.67sec, which was also a new national best.
Joseph Schooling celebrating his win in the men’s 200m butterfly at the SEA Games in Indonesia last November. He broke the Games record with a time of 1min 56.67sec, which was also a new national best.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE

Last year saw him surface to the top of the butterfly pile

Colin Schooling still recalls the day it struck him that his son was no ordinary kid. Ironically, the epiphany came when he was blurry-eyed and exhausted after a long night out.

Colin and his son Joseph were on a golfing holiday in Malaysia eight years ago, and got back to their hotel only at 2am after meals with friends and relatives.

Yet, after just two hours of sleep, Joseph was by his father’s bedside shaking him and getting him to wake up.

The father had promised the eight-year-old that he would take him to the pool for training the next morning – and Joseph did not forget it.

“That moment”, Colin said, “was when I realised that my son meant business”.

Even at that age, when most kids are temporarily driven by whims and fancies, Joseph had exhibited a maturity beyond his years. He had understood the importance of the daily grind in the pool, of every training session.

Eight years on, things have changed. Joseph is in the United States and there is no need for daddy to take him to training. The swimmer ferries himself from home at Jacksonville, Florida, to The Bolles School, which is a five-minute drive away, where he trains and studies.

But one thing remains – the burning desire to succeed.

Last year, the 16-year-old went from being a relative unknown, to not just a national but also a regional swimming star.

Two SEA Games golds, with one in record time, and nine national marks attest to his supremacy. He even surpassed swimming legend Michael Phelps’ age-group timing.

And to top all that, he earned a ticket to the London Olympics by being the only Singapore swimmer to have met the Olympic “A” qualifying time.

His accolades have left many in the local swimming community hailing him as one of the country’s biggest talents, and also secured him a nomination for The Straits Times’ Athlete of the Year 2011 award.

Said Singapore Swimming Association Jeffrey Leow: “His achievements have been fantastic and he has gone beyond what we have targeted for him. He is demonstrating his ability at a relatively young age. The average age of a first-time Olympic medallist is 22.”

National head coach Ang Peng Siong regards Joseph’s 200m fly SEA Games-winning time of 1min 56.67sec, which also made the Olympic “A” cut, as one of the swimmer’s top achievements of the year. 

He said: “Joseph has set new frontiers, being the only local swimmer to make the ‘A’ standard. We hope this will set the benchmark for others to follow.”

Meeting the “A” qualifying time set by swimming’s international body Fina, guarantees the swimmer an Olympic spot.

Said Joseph, by e-mail from Jacksonville: “I feel honoured to be nominated. I’ve done a pretty good job this year. I’ve had ups and downs, but I pulled through.”

It was last June, at the National Championships, where he first made his name as the national king of butterfly – claiming the 100m and 200m fly, and 200 individual medley national records. 

But it was clear that Joseph had cast his eyes beyond local shores.

By the year’s end, he was beating the region’s best, exiting November’s SEA Games in Indonesia with two gold medals, one silver, one bronze, and one SEA Games record.

He also showed a glimpse of his world-class potential when he surpassed American superstar Phelps’ age-group (15-16 years) time over the 100 yards butterfly (short course) at the United States’ Short-Course Junior National Championships last month. He clocked 47.06sec to shave 0.07sec off Phelps’ mark.

Through various competitions last year, Joseph now owns both the national and the under-17 50m, 100m, 200m fly and 200 IM records. He is also part of the record-breaking Under-17 4x100m medley relay team.

Looking back at his accomplishments, Joseph said: “I wouldn’t have believed it. Twelve months ago, I was doing 2:08 in the 200m fly and now I’m doing 1:56.”

The swimmer is even more focused on what he needs to do now: “I want to take everything one step at a time and work towards the Olympics.”