Nominee #2: Joseph Schooling (swimming)

ST Athlete of the Year: Rio champ's only Blues

Chelsea's travails last year made life a little agonising for the Olympic gold medallist

In a year when everything went swimmingly for Joseph Schooling in the pool, it is unsurprising his nadir occurred away from the water.

The day? April 17, when it became mathematically impossible for English Premier League football club Chelsea to finish in the top four.

A Blues fan, he told The Sunday Times in a Skype interview last week: "It was when we missed out on the Champions League. Last season was really bad, like, it was surprising when we won.

"Every defeat made my week suck. The problem is (Jose) Mourinho, he just wears people down."

It has been more than five months since he won the Olympic 100m butterfly gold in a Games record of 50.39 seconds, but he claims to have barely watched clips of that race.

"I count three times I went out of my way to watch it," said the University of Texas at Austin student, who was nevertheless put through repeats of his feat in his two homecomings since.

"I just try to be as normal as I can. I'm still not used to people calling me the Olympic champion," said the, well, Olympic champion.

"I'm a pretty chill guy. I don't make a big deal out of things."

Maybe it is this ability to disengage from swimming that keeps him focused on the real goal - to keep getting faster - as he jumps back into training six days a week.

For to say his life has turned upside down since winning the Olympic gold would be a massive understatement. He, after all, consigned swimming greats Michael Phelps, Laszlo Cseh and Chad le Clos to joint-second in Rio de Janeiro.

Schooling's followers on social media - a telling metric on popularity - exploded overnight. On Instagram, his followers jumped from 25,000 to 150,000. On Facebook, they shot from 8,000 to 130,000.

While Schooling accepts the added scrutiny, he said not thinking about his historic win helps.

"There are more restrictions about what I can say or do but I try not to think about it. I just try to be as normal as I can," he said.

An example of how laid back - and oblivious - he can get sometimes: At the Istana last year for an event, Schooling wondered if he could ask President Tony Tan Keng Yam for permission to play on the Istana's nine-hole golf course.

He was ultimately dissuaded from posing the question.

The ease with which he has adapted to the new normal is why the swimmer is confident of proving he is no one-hit wonder at the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships in March.

Then at the World Championships in July, he will try to crack Phelps' world record of 49.82sec set in 2009, when the now-banned rubber suits were in use.

"I'm excited to be in a new spot. Rather than always chasing, now I'm the one being chased and it excites me," said Schooling, the 100m fly bronze medallist at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan.

"I love high-pressure situations. The pressure gets me going. It pushes me to stay alert and to stay fully committed to winning.

"I know I'm going to be at my best when it matters."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2017, with the headline 'Rio champ's only Blues'. Print Edition | Subscribe