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Olympics Rio 2016

Olympics: Singapore's swim king Joseph Schooling on being older, wiser, faster

The starstruck kid is no more and, in his place, a confident and relaxed Jo Schooling is determined to make his idol Michael Phelps second-best

It is close to dinner time as Joseph Schooling dives into the pool at the South Florida Aquatic Club, just outside of Fort Lauderdale.

While one could just about make out the faint growl of hungry stomachs, the quiet is broken as Schooling and his team-mates break into a sprint while Singapore head coach Sergio Lopez barks out instructions.

Lopez cracks a joke about getting to dinner on time just as Schooling reaches the wall. He wears a smile on his face. It is less than two months to the Olympics, but there is a steady calmness about the 21-year-old.

Singapore's main hope for a swimming medal in Rio de Janeiro is completely in his element - focused and relaxed.

"There was a different sort of pressure in 2012, it was more of an external pressure," said Schooling, referring to the London Games. "Now I focus on myself.

YOUNG AND DANGEROUS

I'm the youngest guy. I've got the most to improve, I can recover faster. Every year makes a difference.

JOSEPH SCHOOLING on why, even at only 21 years old, this could be his year.

"I do it for myself and the people around me and I don't worry about what other people say."

A mature and collected athlete, it seems, has taken the place of the young upstart of four years ago who was eager to tip the scales.

"In 2012, I thought I could fight with (Michael) Phelps," he said in reference to the 18-time Olympic gold-winning American.

"But I was not physically and mentally ready and my only experience was the SEA Games."

He also admits being starstruck at the time, something he has overcome after competing regularly against Phelps and other top swimmers in the past few years.

"I have to feel like I belong at the Olympics and World Championships, rub shoulders with the best and not be starstruck," he said, which is where he is now.

  • TALE OF THE TAPE

    JOSEPH SCHOOLING

    HIS 100M FLY BEST (2015) 50.96

    IN LONDON 2012, HE'D BE 1st

    SEASON RANKING (51.58SEC) 13th

    HIS CHANCES

    Deep down I want to win, I know I can win, that would be my ultimate goal.

In fact, he was even able to beat his idol in the 100m butterfly at the Longhorn Elite Invite held in Austin, Texas last month. He finished first, in 51.58 seconds, the 13th fastest in the world this year.

Another confidence boost was his bronze medal in the same event at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, last August.

"There is a peacefulness and control when you take your mark and you know you are going to do well and not going to mess up. It happened at the Asian Games and also at the worlds," said Schooling, who added that he has had a year to gain ground on his competitors since.

"I'm the youngest guy. I've got the most to improve, I can recover faster. Every year makes a difference."

Hungary's Laszlo Cseh has clocked the year's best time in the 100m fly. His 50.86 is just ahead of Phelps (51.00) and also Chad le Clos (51.56). All three are expected to be Schooling's biggest threats to winning a medal.

Schooling will likely have to better his personal best of 50.96, clocked in Kazan, to be in contention of a historic podium finish.

Older, wiser, his preparation for his second Games has also seen him pay closer attention to his diet. The butterfly specialist admits he eats "a healthier version of everything", for example, opting for his meals to be cooked in coconut oil if possible.

His living conditions have also improved. Last April, he moved out of the student dormitory to an apartment to get more rest, and not have to worry about others disrupting his schedule - a gruelling mix of school and training starting as early as 6am, six days a week.

 

On a regular day, he fits in 11/2 hours of swimming in the morning, class from about 9am to noon, weight training after lunch, and two more hours of swim practice in the late afternoon.

 

"I'm in bed by about 11pm every night," said Schooling, who doesn't see it as cutting into his social life.

Instead, he said it is all about "making the right choices".

"If I'm out till 4am in the morning, then I am going to suffer the next day, and in fact the next few days"

He is even mindful about getting sucked into a TV series like Game Of Thrones, which friends have been pressuring him to watch. "I know it will take hours and weeks, and I don't have a month to sit down every night to watch it," he said.

He knows all about focus. On his Olympic debut in 2012, he was told minutes before the 200m fly heats that his equipment was not on the approved list, got distracted and missed out a semi-final spot.

It was one of the darkest moments on his ascent to the top. He had a hard time letting go of that loss, argued with his coach Sergio Lopez, and later hurt his ankle.

"The whole of the next year, it was hard to get back in the swing of things. It happens when you fall way short of your expectations," he said. "But I realised I was messing up... I had a good support group, parents, friends and Sergio, to dig me out of the hole."

Lopez, who is the head coach of Singapore, believes his charge is ready to take on the top names in the pool this summer.

"It just depends on who believes in it and commands the last 15m to 20m," he said. "If it's a good day, he can get a medal. Everyone needs a good day to get a medal."

To get in the zone for his race, Schooling said he might watch Peaceful Warrior, a movie about a gymnast who shattered his legs, before his big swim.

"It gets you fired up, I've watched it maybe four or five times," he said.

Music from his Spotify playlist, Jojo, will also be playing as he walks to the pool in headphones.

"I don't like people talking to me before the race, I just want to do my thing," said Schooling, who is likely to compete in the 100m fly, and either the 200m fly or the 100m freestyle, depending on the line-up.

With all this talk of a medal, and a nation's hopes resting on his shoulders, he said it helps to just block out the chatter: "I just think about what I have done to get here, who has been here to help me, I go back to the basics and break it down."

And while he says he would be satisfied with a medal, there is a quiet resolve that indicates otherwise: "Deep down I want to win.

"I know I can win, that would be my ultimate goal."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'Older, wiser, faster'. Print Edition | Subscribe