Sporting Life

Small peeks into Schooling's Rio masterpiece

Practice in swimming might be the loneliest place in sport. No sparring partner, no banter, just perfection chased in every lane in a solitary, submerged silence. It is almost an ascetic life, lengths done in a pool like the lines of a meditative chant repeated. Practice is what Joseph Schooling, devotee of racing, finds dull. "No one gives you gold medals for practice," he says.

It's Friday afternoon in Singapore and he is answering questions on the phone from his car, going home after another bout of handshakes and poses, armed with a disarming smile that can melt an auntie's heart at 20 paces. He's exhausted, but just mention competitiveness and it raises his heartbeat and lifts his tone. Suddenly he's telling you that he arm-wrestled with some kids that day and one used two hands and still Schooling won. He had to win. He must always win. He can't let anyone else win. "I don't care how old you are," he laughs.

His need to win is a habit, a gift, a disease, a thread of DNA, which he carries everywhere, even to training. He may hate practice but he hates losing more. If someone gets past him in practice, explains his team-mate Tripp Cooper, then "Joe just has to edge past him".

Schooling's competitiveness is one part of the Rio jigsaw which we're still trying to solve. Greatness is a puzzle and we want to know its pieces, as if you can actually break a feat into comprehensible parts. It's not possible - victory is always part-mystery - but it's fun. To try and understand Schooling's win is to remember it and to ask again, as we might for the rest of our lives:

How. The. Hell. Did. You. Do. It. Kid?

How? It's too many things to list. It's the "12,000 metres" a day he swam, long days in water for one, perfect short sprint. It's the 95kg bench presses, the 125kg dead lifts, the four-minute planks, the "beet juice" that nutritionist Kirsty Fairbairn got him to drink, the quitting of partying, the stopping of sodas.

Just mention competitiveness and it raises his heartbeat and lifts his tone. Suddenly he's telling you that he arm-wrestled with some kids that day and one used two hands and still Schooling won... He can't let anyone else win. "I don't care how old you are," he laughs. Rohit Brijnath

Every part matters, every piece has a different weight. It's the "best kick" and the "strongest legs" that Cooper insists he has. It's Eddie Reese, coach and old school guru, who believes in labour not computers and who "knows how to make people feel good". It's beating Michael Phelps at a meet before Rio and feasting on the confidence: "I started thinking, 'Wow, it's really going to happen'."

It's about every day in North America when he goes to practice thinking he could win in South America; it's about one day in Rio when he masters the field in the semis without exerting and then just knows that gold is within his grasp. "I still had a lot left in the tank," he clarifies.

Athletes can be rugged and practical, ruthless and masochistic, yet they are creatures of great feeling. Not in the sense of emotion experienced but in awareness of how tuned their machinery is. It is a highly sensitive recognition of what is happening with their bodies, how comfortable they feel, how energetic.

Feel is what Schooling focuses on in Rio - he may be counting strokes subconsciously - and he likes what he feels. Ask what this means and he lets you peek under the skin of his performance: "You feel strong, you feel in control, you feel connected, you feel efficient." He didn't make a perfect turn and yet once 50 metres was done he started "feeling superbly explosive". The swimmer who dislikes practice had found the feel he had practised for.

This 20-minute, rapid autopsy of his 50 brilliant metres is nearly over, but there is one piece left to briefly consider. The biggest piece perhaps, the piece he enjoys the most, the centrepiece of his masterpiece. Schooling the Racer.

Great athletes are exhibitionists, they want to show you their skill, test it, prove it, flaunt it; they want to find their best self amid the intoxicating mix of nerves, adrenaline, crowd, pressure, camera, noise. "I love the rush, I love the thrill," says Schooling. Swimming is simple - who touches first - and yet winning never is. "Racing is always different," he continues "and you never know what to expect". Bodies mutiny, form hiccups, rivals improve, but somehow the racer must adapt.

This is essentially who Schooling is, the athlete who rejoices in the challenge, the swimmer who prefers showtime to rehearsals. "I excel when it matters," he says with a little swagger and then he's gone. Back to America. Back to Reese, whistles, bench presses, planks. Back to that thing which doesn't move him but which has made him. Practice. He'll persevere, he just doesn't have to enjoy it.

You can almost see him in the early morning in America, overtaken by a team-mate in training, his racing engine instinctively starting to growl. Faster, Joe, a voice will say, First, Joe, it will insist, and maybe he will grin underwater and surge. There are no gold medals in practice yet every day he chases his own, small victories on his way to his next major triumph. Rio was yesterday and Joseph Schooling only swims for tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 27, 2016, with the headline 'Small peeks into Schooling's Rio masterpiece'. Print Edition | Subscribe