One swimmer, one nation - Seismic 2016: Singapore sport

The golden handshake that marks a new beginning

Michael Phelps (left) of United States congratulating Joseph Schooling (right) of Singapore, as Hungary's Laszlo Cseh (centre) looks on, on the podium after the men's 100m butterfly final in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, on Aug 12, 2016.
Michael Phelps (left) of United States congratulating Joseph Schooling (right) of Singapore, as Hungary's Laszlo Cseh (centre) looks on, on the podium after the men's 100m butterfly final in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, on Aug 12, 2016.PHOTO: ST FILE

Nothing for me beats the poignancy of the handshake between Joseph Schooling and Michael Phelps in the Olympic Aquatics Stadium pool, seconds after the 100m butterfly final.

The previous 50 or so seconds had felt like a blur of bodies splashing in water, heads bobbing up and down and Singaporeans - including me - holding our breath.

It was hard to comprehend the significance of what I had just witnessed until that handshake.

Not only had Schooling captured the country's first Olympic gold but he had beaten the greatest Olympian as well. This was Phelps, eventual owner of 28 Olympic medals and undefeated in a major 100m fly final (Olympics and World Championships) in more than a decade.

Yet, there was the great American champion, gliding across from lane two, the first to acknowledge the younger man's own odyssey. They hugged and two congratulatory pats on the new champ's back followed.

 

Both men had crossed paths eight years earlier and Schooling had long credited Phelps as his inspiration and idol.

It is silly to compare us, Schooling stressed afterwards. And rightfully so. One gold medal versus 23 can never be considered a contest. But for that one night in Brazil, as both swimmers embraced, the memory of who was No. 1 was clear to me.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline 'The golden handshake that marks a new beginning'. Print Edition | Subscribe