Olympics: Schooling's explosive start, sticking to his game plan, the key to gold-medal victory

Joseph Schooling touched the wall 0.75sec faster than the trio of Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos and Lazslo Cseh.
Joseph Schooling touched the wall 0.75sec faster than the trio of Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos and Lazslo Cseh.PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO - Every time Joseph Schooling's head surfaced for a breath of air on Friday night in Brazil, 5.39 million people thousands of miles away watched and held theirs.

The men's 100m butterfly race lasted less than a minute but at the end, both swimmer and Singapore sport came of age.

For Schooling, the gold hanging near his heart during the medal ceremony was the metallic proof and reward of a life's journey.

He said: "It's been a tough road, not going to lie. The first guy through the wall is always bloody. I had to take that blow and I'm thankful and blessed that I have the ability to accomplish the things I dreamt of as a little kid.

"This moment is not about me, it's about my coaches, my friends, my family... This swim wasn't for me, it was for my country."

For the nation whose crescent moon and stars were displayed on his black cap bobbing in and out of the Olympic Aquatic Stadium pool in Rio de Janeiro, this was a seminal moment 11 time zones away.

Where were you, future generations will hopefully ask, when Schooling won Singapore's first Olympic gold and showed a sometimes cynical people that no dream is impossible.

Historians will tell us that Schooling's time in the final was 50.39 seconds, that it was an Olympic record and the third-fastest time ever set.

Schooling was majestic in the water as he beat - no, smashed (to use a phrase he likes) - the best the planet had to offer.

The 21-year-old touched the wall 0.75sec faster than the trio of Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos and Lazslo Cseh, all in a time of 51.14 - the first time three competitors tied for second at the Summer Games.

The combined winning gap in this event from the last three Olympics, all won by Phelps, was 0.28sec. The last time the American legend lost a major 100m fly final (Olympics and World Championships) was in 2005 when he ended 1.25sec behind compatriot Ian Crocker.

Schooling was supposed to feel the pressure, this was his first Olympic final - Phelps, le Clos and Cseh have 33 medals between them - and in fact the first by any Singaporean man before him.

In other words, this was uncharted waters. Yet he showed no nerves right before the biggest race of his life, slapping his chest as he walked confidently to the Lane 4 starting block, three Singapore flags to his back and a nation behind him.

Much like the 100m fly heats and semi-finals, he was explosive - his 0.61sec reaction time the joint-best of the eight finalists - and had the lead by the turn.

National coach Sergio Lopez, who mentored Schooling for five years at the Bolles School in Florida, said that was key. He noted: "He knew he had a chance. His goal was to break the race. I feel very proud. He believes in himself. He learnt not to hesitate, he knew he could do it."

 

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The cavernous amphitheatre was packed to the rafters with around 10,000 fans, many carrying US flags, waiting for Phelps, the human leviathan and 22-time Olympic champion, to make his move. But the 31-year-old American, swimming in his 11th race in Rio, looked spent. Instead it was Schooling, a decade younger, who powered home. His second split of 26.75 was also the fastest.

Schooling said: "I just tried to stick to my game plan, knew I would be out fast. It was all about how much heart you had coming home, trying to get your hand on the wall first and thankfully I could."

Both two-time 100m fly world champion le Clos and five-time Olympic medallist Cseh paid tribute to Schooling during the press conference afterwards while the biggest praise came from his idol Phelps.

"I think it'll be pretty cool to see someone else break 50s...," said Phelps, glancing in Schooling's direction. "It's up to him where he wants to take it. Ball's in his court, as big as he wants to dream, as hard as he wants to work to be able to do whatever's in his head."

Besides receiving $1 million from the Singapore National Olympic Council's Multi-Million Dollar Awards Programme, Schooling's victory ended the Republic's 56-year wait for a second male Olympic medallist after Tan Howe Liang's weightlifting silver at the 1960 Rome Games.

Schooling said: "I hope it (his gold medal) shows that even people from the smallest countries in the world can do extraordinary things."