SEA Games: Swimmer Joseph Schooling aims for a perfect 9 golds

Joseph Schooling, who made waves at the Commonwealth Games and Asiad last year, says it is crucial that Team Singapore lap up the home-ground advantage during the SEA Games.
Joseph Schooling, who made waves at the Commonwealth Games and Asiad last year, says it is crucial that Team Singapore lap up the home-ground advantage during the SEA Games.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Swim star aims for a perfect 9 golds, which will make him Games' story Singapore are sending their biggest contingent - 749 - to a SEA Games. The Straits Times starts its countdown of the 36 teams with swimming and petanque

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HE COMES from Singapore, swims with the familiar red and white flag on his cap, and introduced the country to the swimming world by winning medals in foreign waters.

But now, as an adult and almost world-class swimmer, Joseph Schooling will finally perform in Singapore.

His homecoming begins on June 7, at 9.04am, when the United States-based swimmer embarks on a quest for perfection in nine events.

Of the record 749 athletes wearing the Singapore flag, his performances are the ones many will keep an eye on.

His tale of perfection, or not, is set to be the story of the Games.

"The goal is definitely to win all my events," said the University of Texas student.

"It's no secret. Every time I dive into the pool, I go to win.

"I never really aim for just a medal. It's a big challenge but I'm excited to take it on."

If he succeeds, he will replicate the achievements of the Class of 93's top performer, nine-gold swim queen Joscelin Yeo.

Only Patricia Chan (twice) and Junie Sng have won more golds (10) at a single SEA Games.

Singapore head coach Sergio Lopez, who was Schooling's coach at the Bolles School in Florida, said: "I know Joseph, he's going to be ready. This is his country, it's the 50th anniversary and he will show his best."

More than just winning medals, the 19-year-old is buzzing at the prospect of finally swimming in front of a home crowd in a major competition.

Said Schooling: "This is my home, where I grew up and where everything started. My friends and family are going to be there and I'm really excited to be racing in a home atmosphere for once."

This was a privilege he has had to live without since 2009 when he left for the United States to chase his dream of winning an Olympic medal.

From a kid who would wake up early to sneak into the study to play computer games, he was forced to grow up faster than his peers, and learn to take control of the spartan life he chose.

Six years on, the once promising child swimmer is now a talent the world is taking notice of.

At last year's Commonwealth Games, the butterfly specialist won Singapore's first swimming medal, a silver, in the 100m fly after finishing second to world champion Chad le Clos.

At the Asian Games, the Singaporean justified his decision to train in the US with a bronze, a silver and Singapore's first men's swimming gold in 32 years.

He said: "When I first got here, the guys were faster, stronger; it was very competitive and I struggled. But it taught me that if I want to be the best, I have to get my act together, and start working harder than these guys.

"The six years have really flown by and I've no regrets.

"Everything worked out well."

Coming off a year of training under renowned coach Eddie Reese in Texas, Schooling said he is a different beast to the one who created history last year.

Added emphasis on weight training saw him gain 3kg of muscle while regular racing against top US swimmers has primed him for high-pressure meets.

In March, he won three titles on his National Collegiate Athletic Association championships debut and was crowned the Big 12 Men's Newcomer of the Year, proving yet again that the size of the occasion has a direct relationship with the magnitude of his performances.

The SEA Games may be a step down in terms of competitiveness but he said: "This meet is really important to me. That it's on home ground means it's even more important that we do well. I'm treating it as I would all the big Games, and I want to help my country and hopefully inspire the next generation of swimmers."

While he is making waves in the US, national team-mate Quah Zheng Wen has risen to the fore and will swim in 12 events at the biennial meet.

The duo, who have 10 national individual records between them, will go head-to-head in four events.

On their rivalry, Schooling said: "It's healthy competition and it's great for us to be pushing each other. It just means we'll swim a lot faster than if one wasn't pushing the other."

Zheng Wen, sister Ting Wen, Tao Li and Danny Yeo are all poised to shine at the meet.

With 38 events, the Singapore swim squad will aim to better their best-ever haul of 17 golds at the 2011 edition.

If all goes according to plan, it should make them Singapore's most successful team and Schooling the Games' most successful athlete.

With the swimmer turning 20 on June 16, the last day of the Games, it will be a fitting way to mark his homecoming, the perfect story of the 2015 SEA Games.

siangyee@sph.com.sg

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