BUDAPEST - Joseph Schooling admitted that he has paid the price for his post-Olympic hangover after his dream of a World Championships gold medal was sunk at the Danube Arena.
The Olympic champion in the 100m butterfly could not deliver on his promise to add the world title in Sunday's (July 30, Singapore time) final in Hungary though he still produced a stirring swim to claim a bronze medal.
He finished in 50.83 seconds, behind American Caeleb Dressel (49.86 sec) and Hungary’s Kristof Milak (50.62) and in a tie with Britain’s James Guy.
The thrilling battle had many, including Schooling’s parents Colin and May plus other family members and friends, inside the 12,000-seat arena standing and cheering.
After the final, he told The Straits Times: “It just wasn’t clicking. When you take six months off and only come back in December, January, that’s what you get. Eddie (Reese, his coach at the University of Texas) warned me. I thought, ‘What does this old guy know?’, but it shows you know.
“I had to learn the hard way. I got my a** kicked. There’s no other way to say it.”
The Singaporean had won a bronze – the first piece of silverware by a local swimmer at the biennial competition – in this event at the 2015 edition in Kazan, Russia, foreshadowing his historic feat in Brazil but vowed that a bronze medal in Budapest did not signal the passing of his powers.
Only three men, Anthony Nesty (1988, 1991), Lars Frolander (2000, 2001) and Michael Phelps (2008, 2009) have won back-to-back 100m fly Olympic and world crowns.
Things will not be easier from here though, thanks to the emergence of his former Bolles School team-mate Dressel.
The braces-wearing 20-year-old has been hailed as the natural successor to his compatriot Phelps after some breakthrough performances at this year’s World Championships.
Fellow American and nine-time Olympic champion Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, told The Straits Times that Dressel “had that killer instinct needed to win finals, which is the most important thing and not just breaking records”.
The 1.91m Dressel had won four golds (50m freestyle, 100m free, 4x100m free and mixed medley) and now owns the fastest time in a textile suit for the 100m fly, leapfrogging Schooling as the man most likely to eclipse Phelps’ world record of 49.82 sec.
There will be plenty of rematches in the years to come for Schooling and Dressel with Asia the forthcoming battleground.
The 2019 World Championships will be in Gwangju, South Korea and the 2020 Summer Games will be held in Tokyo.
Schooling himself acknowledged the budding rivalry after the final, saying: “Everyone needs someone who will push you to go faster. Phelps had Ian Thorpe and Milorad Cavic. I’m not comparing me and Caeleb to them but it does set us up to have an exciting couple of years leading up to Tokyo.”
He paid tribute to the American, saying: “There are just no words to describe what he just did. He had a 50m free final just before that.”
On his own race, the Singaporean said: “I am disappointed, I had a long finish and was half a second slower than my personal best.”
Nonetheless, he said he was “glad to get a medal at least. It gives me something to work on for the next few years”.
Mr Lee Kok Choy, president of the Singapore Swimming Association, congratulated Schooling on his win. "I would like to congratulate Joseph on his bronze medal, his second bronze medal at the World Championships. This is yet another fantastic achievement for Singapore and the swimming fraternity as a whole."
"Joseph's performance and his dedication is beyond measure, and he has given Singapore lots to cheer about," he said.
Schooling's team-mate Quah Zheng Wen, 20, also wrapped up his World Championships campaign.
He finished 30th overall in the 50m backstroke heats, his fifth event of the eight-day meet. He did not make the last-16 in any of them and vowed to return stronger at next month’s SEA Games.
Improvement will be foremost in Schooling’s thoughts, as will his pursuit of Phelps’ world record, when he returns to Singapore this week to prepare for the biennial Games in Kuala Lumpur.
He broke two Asian records en route to a fifth-placed finish in the 50m fly, but did not qualify for the semi-finals of the 100m free, summing up a mixed meet, and year.
In March, he lost both his 100-yard and 200-yard fly titles at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Championships and did not win an individual title for the first time since he started college in 2014.
As with all his previous medals, Schooling will hand over this one to his parents to store in his father’s office cabinet.
A second World Championships medal should not be taken lightly but to the supremely competitive Schooling, gold has always been his obsession and fuel.