Schooling's world championships woes

Don't count Joseph Schooling out yet, says Singapore head coach

Widmer says Olympic champ will learn painful lesson and rebound for Tokyo 2020

While Singapore Olympic champion Joseph Schooling was third fastest at the 2017 world meet, he has dropped to 24th after posting 52.93 seconds in the heats on July 27, 2019. PHOTO: SIMONE CASTROVILLARI

There would have been worried frowns among some of Singapore Olympic champion Joseph Schooling's fans after the swimmer's performance at this week's Fina World Championships, where he failed to at least retain his 100m butterfly bronze and did not advance beyond the heats in the 50m fly too.

The 24-year-old has seen a dip in fortunes since he was crowned the world's quickest 100m fly swimmer at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. While he was third fastest at the 2017 world meet, he has dropped to 24th after posting 52.93 seconds in yesterday's heats.

Since setting the Olympic record of 50.39sec, he has clocked only three sub-51sec times in the last three years. All were in 2017.

But Singapore head coach and performance director Stephan Widmer believes there is no need to push the panic button, pointing out there is still time for Schooling to return to form for Tokyo 2020 and retain his butterfly gold.

Calling Schooling's performance in South Korea a "painful lesson" for everyone, he highlighted how the last four months have been a "massive transition phase".

After turning professional in March last year and then graduating from the University of Texas, Schooling, who lived in the United States for about a decade since he was 13, returned home early this year to train with Widmer's team and the national swim squad.

"In sport, it is crucial to have consistency in the athlete's training environment and the people you work with," said the Australian, who has coached Olympic champions Libby Trickett and Leisel Jones.

"That's the thing that he didn't have the last few months and this (performance) is not from the lack of pushing or trying. A lot of things have changed in his life as an athlete, emotional changes and a new coach and team to get used to.

"Today is a painful lesson but we will learn from it."

Schooling also fell short earlier in the 50m fly, clocking 23.73sec to finish 20th overall.

While the clock is ticking for next year's July 24-Aug 9 Summer Games, Widmer believes 12 months is "enough time" for Schooling to rediscover his form.

He added: "There is not too much time and it's not time that can be wasted. It's about effectiveness - utilising every month, hour, session and each rep is crucial."

While he did not go into specifics, Widmer stressed Schooling has to put in "meaningful hard training" in the months ahead and find a balance between that and having fun in the "right social environment".

Former national swimmers Ang Peng Siong and Tao Li also gave Schooling their vote of confidence. Ang, who was previously national head coach, said that it is "premature" to write the swimmer off.

"He has one year to prepare for Tokyo... this is a time for reflection to look at what he needs to do and get back into it," said Ang.

The key is to dust himself off and get back out there with the world's best swimmers. The 56-year-old added: "Joseph's done it before... the important thing is to keep it honest. I always advocate that athletes have to go where the competition is to know how your performance is with the best in the world."

Retired Olympian Tao stressed that every athlete experiences "ups and downs", as she noted the transitional changes Schooling has gone through in the last few months.

It is an experience the former butterfly specialist knows too well. She split from coach Barry Prime ahead of the 2012 London Games.

"I understand that he's going through a lot - a change of coaches is not very good for an athlete especially when your (previous) coach took you to a high level," said the two-time Asian Games champion.

"He's swum consistent times in the 52-second mark this year and hopefully next year he can perform. He needs to be given time to adapt."

While some have suggested Schooling could recapture his winning form by returning to the US, Widmer said it was not an option.

"There's nothing on the horizon (in this area) that the athlete wants to consider." he added. "This is another chapter for him as a 24-year-old, you have to redefine yourself and not go back to the same situation. In life you have to evolve and adapt to things."

With Schooling now chasing rivals like 10-gold world champion Caeleb Dressel and Hungary's Kristof Milak, Widmer predicted it would take "49.3 to 49.6 seconds" to win the 100m fly gold at the Tokyo Games.

Dressel is the current world-record holder after smashing fellow American Michael Phelps' previous best of 49.82sec in yesterday's semi-finals in 49.50sec.

While performances at the world meet are a good indication of an athlete's form a year out from the Olympics, Widmer is not about to bet on podium finishes just yet.

"It doesn't matter what you do at this meet, there are no guaranteed outcomes at the Olympic Games," he said. "Statistically, 50 per cent of world-record holders will not win the gold medal at the Olympics. The Games are different and not everyone will swim fast."

Instead, he is putting faith in Schooling's drive and determination to bounce back from this latest setback. "The test for him is how he reacts when days are tough and, at the end of the day, a champion has to want to do this," said Widmer.

"I still believe he has the drive, 100 per cent. There are emotional feelings today but there is still fire and I would like to think what happened reignited that fire."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2019, with the headline Don't count Joseph Schooling out yet, says Singapore head coach. Subscribe