Gold for Joseph Schooling: The final

A tiny nation strikes gold

Schooling gets praise from idol Phelps after triumph records a historic moment for S'pore

Joseph Schooling of Singapore reacting after winning the Rio 2016 Olympic Games men's 100m butterfly final at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 12. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Every time Joseph Schooling's head surfaced for a breath of air on Friday night in Brazil, a country thousands of miles away watched and held theirs.

The men's 100m butterfly race lasted less than a minute but at the end, both swimmer and Singapore sport came of age.

For Schooling, the piece of gold bearing the five Olympic rings hanging near his heart at the medal ceremony was the proof and reward of a life's journey.

He said: "It's been a tough road, not going to lie. The first guy through the wall is always bloody. I had to take that blow and I'm thankful and blessed that I have the ability to accomplish the things I dream of as a little kid.

"This moment is not about me, it's about my coaches, my friends, my family... This swim wasn't for me, it was for my country."

Where were you, future generations will hopefully ask, when Schooling won Singapore's first Olympic gold, first swimming medal, and showed the country that no dream is impossible. For the nation whose crescent moon and five stars were displayed on his black swim cap bobbing in and out of the Olympic Aquatics Stadium pool in Rio de Janeiro, this was a seminal moment 11 time zones away.

Historians will tell us that Schooling's time in the final was 50.39sec, that it was an Olympic record and the third-fastest time ever set. But numbers are binary and the beauty of his win lies in the trio of world-beaters he left in his wake.

For Schooling was majestic in the water as he beat - no, smashed, to use a phrase he likes - the best the planet had to offer.

The 21-year-old touched the wall 0.75sec faster than Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh, all in a time of 51.14 - the first time three competitors were tied for silver at the Games.

The combined winning gap in this event from the last three Olympics, all won by Phelps, was 0.28sec. The last time he lost a major 100m fly final (Olympics and World Championships) was in 2005 when he ended 1.25sec behind compatriot Ian Crocker.

Schooling was supposed to feel the pressure, this was his first Olympic final - Phelps, le Clos and Cseh have 33 Olympic medals between them - and in fact the first by any Singaporean male before him.

This was uncharted waters. Yet he showed no nerves right before the biggest race of his life, slapping his chest as he walked confidently to the Lane Four starting block, three Singapore flags to his back and a nation behind him.

Much like the 100m fly heats and semi-finals, Schooling was explosive - his 0.61sec reaction time the joint-fastest of the eight finalists - and had the lead by the turn.

National coach Sergio Lopez, who mentored Schooling for five years at the Bolles School in Florida, said that was key. He noted: "He knew he had a chance. His goal was to break the race. I feel very proud. He believes in himself. He learnt not to hesitate, he knew he could do it."

The cavernous amphitheatre was packed to the rafters with around 10,000 fans, many carrying US flags, waiting for Phelps, the human leviathan and 22-time Olympic champion, to make his move.

But the 31-year-old American, swimming in his 11th race in Rio, looked spent. Instead it was Schooling, a decade younger, who powered home. His second split of 26.75 was also the fastest.

Schooling said: "I just tried to stick to my game plan, knew I would be out fast, it was all about how much heart you had coming home, trying to get your hand on the wall first and thankfully I could."

Both two-time 100m fly world champion le Clos and five-time Olympic medallist Cseh paid tribute to Schooling during the press conference while the biggest praise came from his idol Phelps.

"I think it'll be pretty cool to see someone else break 50sec...," said Phelps, glancing in Schooling's direction. "It's up to him where he wants to take it. Ball's in his court, as big as he wants to dream, as hard as he wants to work to be able to do whatever's in (the) head."

Besides receiving $1 million from the Singapore National Olympic Council's Multi-Million Dollar Awards Programme, Schooling's victory ended the Republic's 56-year wait for a second male Olympic medallist after Tan Howe Liang's weightlifting silver at the 1960 Rome Games.

Schooling said: "I've received a lot of support and that's phenomenal, can't describe what that means.

"I hope it (the gold medal) paves the way for sports in Singapore and hope it opens a lot of doors."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline A tiny nation strikes gold. Subscribe