Nominee #3: Joseph Schooling (swimming)

ST Athlete of the Year Nominee #3: Joseph Schooling: Driven by defeats from a familiar foe

Singapore's first Olympic champion Joseph Schooling won six golds at the 2017 SEA Games. He is now preparing to wrest back his fly titles at the National Collegiate Athletic Association's championships in Minneapolis next month.

Schooling 'hates' losing to American swim star Dressel, determined to prove a point

Champions hate to lose. It is this desire that drives them in their relentless pursuit of perfection.

In Joseph Schooling's case, losing to a familiar and younger foe - former Bolles School team-mate Caeleb Dressel - made last year's defeats "even worse".

Dressel, 21, beat defending champion Schooling, who is a year older, in the 100-yard butterfly final at last year's National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Swimming and Diving Championships.

The American then upstaged Schooling at the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary last July with a seven-gold haul, including victory in the 100m fly - the same event the Singaporean had won at the Rio Olympics.

But these setbacks have reignited the spark in Schooling - one of five nominees for The Straits Times Athlete of the Year award - which had dimmed in the aftermath of his heroics in Brazil.

"Every great athlete needs another great athlete to push each other: Ali had Frazier, Phelps had Lochte, and I have Caeleb to push me to heights I thought couldn't be done," he told The Straits Times.

"I hate losing to Caeleb; we went to eighth grade together and grew up in the same pool and the same community (at Bolles). There is something about that familiarity that definitely adds fuel to the fire.

Joseph Schooling before the men's 100m butterfly final in Budapest, Hungary last year, when he clocked 50.83sec to finish joint-third with Briton James Guy, behind winner Caeleb Dressel.
Joseph Schooling before the men's 100m butterfly final in Budapest, Hungary last year, when he clocked 50.83sec to finish joint-third with Briton James Guy, behind winner Caeleb Dressel. PHOTO: SIMONE CASTROVILLARI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

"It gets harder to race a person if you are closer to him, and it makes losing even worse."

Dressel's winning time of 49.86 seconds, which was just 0.04sec off Michael Phelps' world record, also stole the headlines. Schooling, who had hoped to rewrite Phelps' mark, was joint-third with Briton James Guy in 50.83.

All his life, Schooling has chased greatness, which came in the shape of Phelps. But after claiming the Olympic gold in a Games record of 50.39, the hunter became the prey.

"I was in unfamiliar territory; it was way easier to chase someone like Phelps than to be ahead and have people chase you," Schooling, a University of Texas senior, mused.

"It sounds very simple, but being in that position (at the top) is very different. You can talk to people with prior experience and think you have all the preparation you need, but there is no other way to know than to go through it yourself."

He was at the crossroads of his career and filled with doubts. But he was able to rely on his family and close friends for support.

His father, Colin, said: "Joseph is still Joseph behind the scenes, when he is with us. He still likes to be pampered and loved. He still shows his tantrums sometimes, but only in front of mummy and daddy.

"When he steps out he is a mature person, and holds himself well."

Schooling is now preparing to wrest back his fly titles at next month's NCAAs in Minneapolis before another major change awaits.

He will make the transition to a professional career after that; he graduates in May but finishes his modules in December.

He has also set a target of three golds at the Asian Games in August in Indonesia while keeping an eye on the next Olympics in Japan.

His mother May said: "He thought hard about what he wants to do and he has decided. He is coming back doubly strong because he's set his next goals. He has come back full force to go for Tokyo 2020."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2018, with the headline 'Driven by defeats from a familiar foe'. Print Edition | Subscribe