Sporting Life

By talking about a world record, Schooling is setting a confident example

At the Olympics, the athlete must be Faster than the man in the next lane; Higher than the woman who just jumped; Stronger than the 10-eggs-a-day weightlifter. All on a given day. The world record is something else. It is Faster, Higher, Stronger than any human has ever been on any day. Joseph Schooling has done the first and will tell you he's now in search of the second.

Schooling is still a perfect race away from a world record for he's over half a second - 50.39 is his best, the WR is 49.82 - from Michael Phelps' time in the 100m butterfly. But merely the idea of a Singaporean in a legitimate hunt for a world record in a mainstream sport is profound.

World records in physical sports always looked foreign to us. They belonged to ghosts from distant lands whose names were stencilled in books. They were broken by lunatic runners who trained in heavy army boots (Paavo Nurmi broke 22 world records) and water whiz-kids who were besting the planet before they could sprout a moustache (Phelps set his first world record at 15).

These were people like no other. On one hand Jesse Owens who set five world records in 45 minutes on one miraculous afternoon. On the other Daley Thompson, who once reportedly said: "When I lost my decathlon world record I took it like a man. I only cried for 10 hours."

Now this Singaporean wants a WR by his name?

Isn't he scared?

Or is he just scary?

World records belonged to ghosts from distant lands whose names were stencilled in books. They were broken by lunatic runners who trained in heavy army boots (Paavo Nurmi broke 22 world records) and water whiz-kids who were besting the planet before they could sprout a moustache (Phelps set his first world record at 15). Now this Singaporean wants a WR by his name? Isn't he scared? Or is he just scary?

Schooling utters the words "world record" like he's ordering a cappuccino. Not with conceit, just matter-of-factly. As if chasing it is an expected part of his existence. To go faster, shrug, is his daily job.

Ordinary people like us might flinch from Schooling's willingness to talk about breaking a world record. "Why does he say that?", people might ask. Why wear such pressure, why raise expectations, why make such a public declaration? Doesn't he know that if he doesn't break the world record this year, or even win the World Championships, some might mock his ambition?

I don't think he cares and that, right there, is the raw appeal of Schooling. He's not in the thinking-small business, he's not petrified of failure, he's not playing the it's-in-god's-hands card but trying to shape his own future. The only voice he's interested in is not our possibly hesitant one but the competitive one that rumbles in his head. It is precisely this which separates him from the ordinary.

Maybe by articulating his dream Schooling is reinforcing it, or as Gary Tan, National Training Centre head coach, says: "To speak it is to believe it." Maybe the initial victory lies not in achieving a goal but in a boy from Bedok actually insisting it's within his long-armed reach. As Tan adds: "He has that self-belief that sets him apart and not many people can say they're in touching distance of a world record."

In Asia we preach athletic modesty which is beautiful but often it manifests as meekness which is not helpful. We've always been culturally conditioned to be coy about our ambitions, but some officials do athletes a disservice by wrapping them in an over-protective blanket and suffocating their personalities. Boldness, they need to understand, is not boastfulness and it's hard to add a shine to an athletic CV if you don't have a muscular faith in yourself.

Wayne Gretzy, the ice-hockey star who was built of equal parts genius and humility, told the writer Alan Shipnuck last year about the advice he gave his son-in-law, the world No. 1 golfer Dustin Johnson: "I've encouraged him to set very high goals for himself. Tiger-like goals. So this year you've won three tournaments and a Major. Next year make it five tournaments and two Majors. Don't be afraid to be the best. Embrace it."

Winning demands daring and greatness requires audacity. History, and first Olympic golds, were not built from timidity. Schooling has shown us he's a talker and also a walker. The first is no use without the second. Now, by talking about the world record, he is in effect laying down a personal challenge. He may not break it this year, but if he's not prepared we'll know it in a single minute.

Schooling was raised in Asia and schooled in America, but where he learnt to dream so large is a matter not easily solved by genes or geography. Perhaps he was born hungry. Perhaps he appreciates that to separate himself from the very good and join the truly great requires more than a single Olympic gold.

Perhaps he sees the 100m butterfly world record, held through time by a Hungarian, Japanese, Argentinian, Swede, German, Russian, Ukrainian, Australian, Serb and various Americans, and thinks: Why can't someone from the Little Red Dot beat the record's Big Red Line?

If he needs any reinforcement on this last matter, he can always call Yip Pin Xiu. Woman. Singaporean. Swimmer. And breaker of at least 10 world records.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2017, with the headline 'By talking about a world record, Schooling is setting a confident example'. Print Edition | Subscribe