Screams, cheers for Schooling

Swimmer who struck gold at Rio greeted like a rock star as nearly 10,000 turn up for three-hour victory parade

He may have beaten the greatest Olympian of all time and is the first Singapore athlete to get a standing ovation in Parliament.

Yet neither conquering Michael Phelps nor taking wefies with members of the Cabinet could have prepared Singapore's first Olympic champion Joseph Schooling for the events of yesterday morning.

Cheered on by almost 10,000 people who either lined the streets of his victory parade or packed the three pit stops - Marine Terrace Market, Singtel Comcentre and Raffles City Shopping Centre - the 21-year-old swimmer who struck gold at the Rio Olympics was greeted like a rock star.

From overly doting aunties to screaming teens, from overzealous fans who shoved papers to be autographed to drivers so distracted that two got into minor accidents, Singapore was hit by Schooling fever.

"The support today was really incredible," said a stunned Schooling.

"I didn't expect so many people to turn up and I'm really thankful."

Perched on top of an an open-top bus, Schooling and his entourage - which included close friends and family - started their three-hour journey from the Singapore Sports Hub and were soon greeted by enthusiastic well-wishers.

Schooling stopped briefly at Dunman High School, Tanjong Katong Girls' School and Broadrick Secondary School, among others, as students lined the streets, waving mini-flags and homemade signs to greet the 100m butterfly champion.

But it was at the first pit stop at Marine Terrace Market - for a quick bite of fried carrot cake from his favourite stall, Bee Bee Carrot Cake - that the Marine Parade resident was left overwhelmed.

More than 1,000 residents braved the scorching sun, some queueing for nearly two hours, just to meet the star swimmer.

Former national windsurfer Rachel Charis Ng, 40, was one fan who queued early. There with her eight-year-old son Samuel to get an autograph, she said: "We have been big fans of Joseph Schooling since the SEA Games last year and have watched every event of his since."

Those who could not get close to him decided to position themselves along common corridors and carparks of neighbouring blocks just to catch a glimpse.

The mob even prevented Schooling from alighting when he arrived as they pressed against the bus.

The crowd at the second pit stop at Singtel Comcentre was a tad calmer but no less enthusiastic as they screamed his name.

His appeal even extended to drivers - as two of them, distracted by the sight of him in the bus, got into minor accidents. Fortunately, no one was hurt in either incident.

With everyone wanting a piece of the champion, the attention inadvertently shifted to members of his entourage. His parents Colin and May were swamped by autograph and wefie hunters, while national swimming coach Sergio Lopez was also approached by fans. Schooling's good friend and fellow national swimmer Teo Zhen Ren was ambushed by a group of about 20 fans as he was going to the toilet.

By the end, Schooling's long-time maid Yolanda Pascual had her hands full with gifts, including bottles of homemade chilli paste, paintings and bouquets of flowers.

Primary pupils Wynn Ng and Liam Goh, both seven, were among the lucky ones to get Schooling's autograph. Liam said: "I'm going to paste the poster on my cupboard. But I won't take it to school to show my friends, in case it gets torn."

The large turnout meant many were left disappointed as Schooling had a tight schedule. News of his return in November for a fund-raiser will provide relief. They will wait eagerly, particularly diehard fans like Salmiah Sahnan, 61, who calls him "the hero of the century".

•Additional reporting by Nicole Chia and Nicola Chew

Schooling in Singapore
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2016, with the headline 'Screams, cheers for Schooling'. Print Edition | Subscribe