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Sporting Life

Schooling's self-belief a fine weapon to have on a Phelps planet

On a broken knee a gymnast competes. An obsessed wrestler keeps his rival's picture in his locker, his home, his wallet. A runner races till he falls unconscious.

These are not normal people. These are the Olympians. These are people like John Naber, old-time backstroke specialist from the 1970s, who - as rower Steve Redgrave revealed in his book, Inspired - works out that he needs to improve by four seconds in four years to win the 100m gold.

Four seconds is huge in a world judged on fractions so he reduces his life to fractions. He breaks his life into months, days, hours and calculates he must improve by 1/1,200th of a second every successive training hour. In four years he wins four Olympic golds.

How do you beat these kind of people? How does Joseph Schooling? Through work but also confidence. By standing on the blocks in five months in Rio and believing he can outswim the greatest swimmer the earth has found. Yes, him, Phelps.

It's scary, it's crazy, it's fantastic. It's also why I like the way Schooling talks - with that little swagger of the young athlete trying to hide his nervousness and conceal his doubt and stake his place in a hard world.

Environment shapes athletes and Schooling has been waking up for seven years to the confidence and competitiveness that swirls in the American sporting air and you can tell it now in his accent and his attitude. Some of his self-belief is stamped on his genes, but some has come through osmosis.

Last month he told The Straits Times: "I'm not No. 1 yet and I want to be." On Sunday, talking about the NCAA championships, he said: "It's a chance for me right now to show the rest of the world that I've gotten better and I've improved and I'm ready to compete at the Olympic Games." There's no need for us to put pressure on him for he's doing it himself. We're only desperate for him to be great but he's deeply determined to be great.

In Asia we can simplistically split the world into humble and arrogant but there's a fine middle-ground where Schooling resides called self-assured. His tone has purpose and without this confidence the athlete is a physically beautiful shell. He's not talking up his form, he's telling us where he thinks it is.

The big-talking boaster who undermines his rivals can be annoying but so is the over-coy and skittish Asian athlete who mutters timidly "I'll try my best". It's as if we've been schooled to mute our ambitions by a society that tends to find the demure more acceptable.

We're taught to only whisper our goals - i.e. "I hope to get a medal" - for if we don't reach them it is considered a loss of face. In fact it is the natural process of sport. As Ian Thorpe once clarified: "Losing is not coming second. It's getting out of the water knowing you could have done better. For myself, I have won every race I've been in."

We don't only want Schoolings, for there must be place for the quiet, the insular, the shy, but we should enjoy Schooling. He owns a young man's raw honesty, advertises his goals almost innocently and allows us to journey where we rarely get to go in Asia - inside the athlete's state of mind.

Eight months ago I was cautioning patience with him but look how's he grown. Asked to compare himself to London 2012, he said: "I've gotten way stronger every year since then. I've dropped three seconds in three years. People try to maintain their time when they get older but I'm still dropping time. I'm comfortable racing these guys. In 2013, I wasn't as comfortable being on the world stage... (but) now I've shown that I can step up and eat up pressure and use it to benefit me. I think the biggest thing is just confidence."

Schooling isn't relying on luck, fate, God's grace or a rabbit's foot. Just his own nerve. He can't guarantee a medal, but he has to be thinking medal. As shooter Abhinav Bindra, India's only individual Olympic gold medallist, told me yesterday: "You need to keep telling yourself you're going to beat everyone. That you can beat everyone. Otherwise you have no chance."

Bindra owns one telling similarity with Schooling: both trained for large periods in America. The shooter described his four years at the United States Olympic Training Centre at Colorado Springs "as the best time of my life" and said of American athletes: "They wake up with the belief that they are better than anyone else and I needed that, I needed that extra belief."

Environment shapes athletes and Schooling has been waking up for seven years to the confidence and competitiveness that swirls in the American sporting air and you can tell it now in his accent and his attitude. Some of his self-belief is stamped on his genes, but some has come through osmosis.

He needs it because if you arrive from a nation where no man has been to an Olympic swimming final, where sporting greatness is still being understood, it's easy to be intimidated. Believing you can conquer the world is the most beautifully impertinent of ideas but it requires boldness. Schooling wears it like a new cloak but men like Michael Phelps wear fearlessness like an old cape.

Schooling knows that, which is why at night - at least till last year - before he slept, he would get onto YouTube to watch film clips. Of Phelps and Chad le Clos. Of big races and Olympic wins. Just a boy in the company of heroes who he must learn to beat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Schooling's self-belief a fine weapon to have on a Phelps planet'. Print Edition | Subscribe