The boy who always hated to lose is now the man who confronts the greatest Olympian
Joseph Schooling is ready. Are you? People everywhere, in every nation, in every sport, are in awe of Michael Phelps. They revere him. Schooling is only trying to beat him. He doesn't believe in lucky charms, only in his own skill. Sit down if you can. A Singaporean is 100m from history.
It's time to race, time to distil four years of work into 50-odd seconds. Racing is not freezing but finding your best at the buzzer. Racing is understanding it's too late to change, improve, sandpaper, so you just focus on yourself, your processes, your starts, your turns. Racing isn't even about a fast time, it's only about winning, even in a lousy time.
Everyone dreams in sport. All people and all nations. We dream of medals and moments, pride and posterity. We want to tell the world, "Hey, did you see our boy go?" Schooling, 21 and fast, dreams, too. But whether he wants to or not, he will also carry ours today.
Pressure is what Schooling, in Lane 4, will feel at 10.12pm, Rio time. Pressure is a crowd baying. Pressure is Phelps, 22 golds, two lanes to his right, and Chad le Clos, silver medallist in London, on his left. "Pressure is good," said Schooling on Thursday. And he smiled.
Schooling walked before he was one, learnt to swim at three and was racing at five. Even now the memory of his kiddish competitiveness has his childhood coach, Vincent Poon, 69, laughing down the phone from Singapore. Poon would have to give other kids a 10-second head start and then Schooling was allowed to chase them. "He'd lose sometimes," said Poon, "and he would work even harder."
Schooling has kept working hard, kept racing, but one thing hasn't changed. Ask Poon, ask his dad Colin, ask his former coach, Sergio Lopez, and they echo each other: "He hates to lose."
But is he good enough to win? A medal of any colour? In just his second Games? And if he doesn't win one will we still be grateful that he put Singapore in a final and let us at least believe a medal was possible? As Poon says: "He's among the eight fastest (swimmers) in the whole world." For the coach this itself is a triumph; for the student only gold will fulfil his dream.
Pressure is what Schooling, in Lane 4, will feel at 10.12pm, Rio time. Pressure is a crowd baying. Pressure is Phelps, 22 golds, two lanes to his right, and Chad le Clos, silver medallist in London, on his left. "Pressure is good," said Schooling on Thursday.
Schooling is a natural athlete and an instinctive creature of the water. Lopez, speaking a dialect known only to swimmers, will tell you "Joseph feels the water very well" and then explains that it's much like a young musician who has an intuitive feel for an instrument. Schooling may walk on two legs but Lopez is suggesting a distant connection to fish.
But a feel for sport is only part of the complicated construction of a may-be medallist: Strength and technique are the bricks, maturity and experience are the slow-drying cement. In size Schooling is more muscular than 2012, in manner he is no longer a boy.
The debutant who lost composure in London when he was disallowed from using his cap, which did not meet regulations, is now a young buck who speaks at the Rio mixed zone with a breezy confidence. Of course he cannot guarantee anyone a medal, but what matters is that you can see how desperately he wants a medal.
As athletes grow, they turn into public property. People want their time - sign please, pose please, quote please - and also for them to win all the time. The better Schooling has become - silver at Commonwealth Games and gold at Asian Games in 2014, bronze at world championships in 2015 - the more swollen has become our expectation. Nations who rarely win medals are often the most eager for them.
Pressure can be unsettling but the best athletes find balance and understand their purpose. To take a tiny example, Schooling, who would get highly agitated after a loss, now has a finer equanimity. He seems assured, his body language shows composure: I can do this, I am good at this. He comes from a hard-working and intelligent nation and yet swimming is also an art, as Lopez insists, which requires creativity. Racing, after all, is a bold expression of the full self.
Sixty-eight years ago in 1948, Schooling's grand-uncle, Lloyd Valberg, became the first to represent Singapore at the Olympics. Schooling met Valberg in Perth when he was a boy and then famously told his parents in the car home, "I want to go the Olympics".
He did. He went to Beijing 2008 at 13 and saw Phelps make history. He went to London 2012 at 17 as a debutant, timed 53.63 in the 100m butterfly and came 35th. Now at 21 he's in a final fight against Phelps - who has won three successive 100m butterfly Olympic golds - and also a superb supporting cast. It's inspiring, it's cool, it's scary. And so don't even think of sitting down. Just stand up for Joseph Schooling.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2016, with the headline 'Schooling carries the dreams of a nation'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.