PALEMBANG - After a week in which he pummelled grown men and made women swoon, Joseph Schooling wants to be a kid again.
On his first day off following his SEA Games exploits, Singapore’s Olympic- bound swimmer hit the PTC Mall in Palembang for some shopping and a ride on a bumper car.
But if he thought he could escape the glare of his budding stardom, he was wrong.
The 16-year-old was immediately recognised by some local schoolgirls who clamoured for autographs and photos. He obliged them all, sheepishly.
“Two of them even asked me to sign their bags – it was pretty cool,” he said, after devouring doughnuts with his teammates at a cafe. “I just have to enjoy the attention while I can. It’s not going to last forever, you know?”
That may be, but for now, Joseph is hot property for Singapore, which has cried out for a world-class male swimmer since Ang Peng Siong and David Lim ruled the pool in the 1980s.
There is a long way to go before the US-based teenager can emulate these two men, but he has taken the crucial first steps on his maiden SEA Games outing.
Two gold medals, one silver, one bronze, one SEA Games record and four national marks make for good reading, but what makes Joseph truly special is the Olympic ticket he won.
He clocked 1min 56.67sec in the 200m butterfly to meet the ‘A’ qualifying mark for London next year.
“Not many people can do that at my age, so I think it’s a great achievement,” he said. “Most importantly, it’s one step closer to what I want to achieve in the next couple of years.”
Joseph is in no hurry to get there. A semi-final spot in London will suit him just fine, failing which, a personal best will be just as satisfying.
“If I do a PB (personal best), it means I’m still moving forward, and that’s all I ask for,” he explained.
Not everything went his way in Palembang. Third place in the 50m fly and a stinging defeat (he took silver) in the 200m individual medley by Thailand’s Ketin Nuttapong on the final day marred an otherwise spotless campaign.
He recalled: “A lot of people tweeted and said that I looked really angry on TV.
“But looking back, I’m happy that I lost that race (the 200m IM), because I know what I have to work on. Hopefully in two years, I’ll come back here and break Nuttapong’s SEA Games record.”
This philosophical attitude is imprinted by Joseph’s coach Sergio Lopez, whose piercing whistles echoed around the Jakabaring aquatics arena during every race.
It is Lopez’s way of encouraging his swimmer, whom he has coached for the last three years at the Bolles School in Florida.
Said Joseph: “He knows me inside out now. His presence enlightens me.”
For Joseph, good coaching went hand in hand with team spirit this week. The young swimmer was forced to undergo initiation rites like leaping off a 10m diving platform and wearing diapers to the Games Village dining hall, but it helped to forge new bonds with his fellow swimmers.
Joseph returns home today, with expectations at an all-time high for the first Singapore swimmer to qualify proper for London 2012. But swimming’s new boy wonder is not about to dwell on the hype.
“I’m only 16 you know? I’m still a kid,” he insists. “I still love to have fun and hang out with my friends and I’m not going to take that away from myself.”