Joseph Schooling: On the road to becoming the best

If he irons out a few kinks, Schooling can be among world's top swimmers, say experts

He has tasted Asian Games success, become a collegiate sensation in the United States and is now the undisputed king of Asean swimming.

And, as more continents become acquainted with Singapore swimming sensation Joseph Schooling, it begs the question: Can the 19-year-old be truly among the world's best?

Fresh from a dominant performance at the Singapore SEA Games, in which he won nine golds from nine events while clocking 10 Games records (he set a new time during his leg in the 4x200m freestyle relay), all signs indicate that the butterfly specialist is not far from being a world-beater.

Said national swimming coach Sergio Lopez, who coached Schooling for five years at the Bolles School in Florida: "His goal has to be winning a medal in Rio (Olympics next year).

"He has the potential, he has the mindset, it's just a matter of what happens in the next 14 months.

"Hopefully, with a little bit of luck, we can get a medal."

A clean sweep of medals at a regional-level meet may not leave world rivals too concerned. But, beyond the titles, it is the manner of victory that has his coaches convinced that he is ready to take on bigger fish.

He clocked the 15th-fastest time of the year when he won the 100m freestyle. His 200m butterfly win stopped the clock at 1min 55.73sec, the eighth-fastest time in the world this year.

By Schooling's own admission, nine events in one meet left him spent. But it will not stop him from doing it again.

"It's definitely one of my most tiring meets," said the Asian Games 100m fly gold medallist. "But maybe I'll attempt nine events again, or more. Why not? I like taking on new challenges."

It is this fearlessness and commitment to excellence that his coaches believe will fuel his ambition of making it to the top. But, once there, it would be foolish to go for quantity instead of channelling his energies and focus on the couple of events he can truly excel in.

Eddie Reese, who is coaching Schooling at the University of Texas, where the Singaporean won three titles on his National Collegiate Athletic Association championships debut and was crowned the Big 12 Men's Newcomer of the Year, said: "He can make the Olympic standard in every event... I'd say just focus on the butterfly and let's get on the podium at the Olympics."

And, while there is no doubting Schooling's talent, Reese urged patience.

The three-time head coach of the United States Olympic men's swimming team said: "I don't believe he's scratched the surface of what he can do. Some days he does things in practice you just can't believe.

"But time is part of the success equation. He can have great strokes, great workouts, but to get better in this sport, you must be willing to work harder than you did in previous years.

"So far, Joseph has been willing and able to do that, and that's important."

Although Reese says Schooling is already armed with great assets - a winner's mentality and a dolphin kick only a dolphin can better - there are still little kinks to iron out.

For example, his dives and surfacing technique can be improved to shave off time. He also needs to hit the wall and his turns more decisively.

The work in progress will get a big test next month at the World Championships in Russia where he will compete in the 50m, 100m and 200m fly.

Said Reese: "This (the SEA Games) has been hard. He didn't really have time to get real fit in this period of time. I can hardly wait till the Worlds, where I think he will make breakthroughs in the 100m and 200m fly."

But perhaps the biggest hint of what could come came from the man himself.

"I'm nowhere near my peak," said Schooling. "I just need more rest... but with some fine-tuning and better race planning, I can do better."

Few would doubt him. Asia can attest to that.

siangyee@sph.com.sg

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