JACKSONVILLE (Florida) – A spirited war cry fills the Schooling residence: “Camouflage!” And then Joseph Schooling emerges from under blanket covers and lets fly a plastic bullet.
His weapon is an ingenious air-pressured device – an empty plastic water bottle wound up so tightly that its cap flies off like a mini missile.
It is a rare moment when the swimmer, who turned 17 last month, allows a fleeting glimpse of the teenager within.
Joseph is too young to drink alcohol or drive in Singapore. So, like many of his peers, he is constantly fidgeting with his white mobile phone, texting and Tweeting throughout the day.
He is only a schoolboy. Yet a schoolboy who has become the only Singaporean swimmer to meet the Olympic ‘A’ time to gain direct qualification to London, where he will compete in the 200m butterfly.
In the past year, the athlete, who only two months ago was celebrated as the youngest to be crowned Sportsman of the Year at the Singapore Sports Awards, has in more ways than one been thrust into adulthood.
Spurred by dreams of becoming an Olympian, he was only 14 when he left home and travelled over 16,000km to train. Since then, home has been a cosy two-bedroom, one garage bungalow in Jacksonville. In a place better known as a retirement village, Joseph is beginning to build a sporting career and to live up to the expectations that inevitably follow talent.
It is another hot and dry 38 deg C summer morning and he would otherwise be celebrating his 10th grade “first honours” semester results with his Bolles School classmates at the beach or at a shopping mall.
But the bearer of two SEA Games golds and three Singapore national records is ploughing away in the waters of the Cassidy Aquatic Fitness Center.
Swimming is a sport in solitude and it is especially so this week as his usual training group is away with the Bolles Sharks’ head coach Sergio Lopez in Omaha, Nebraska, trying to win a place on the United States team for London 2012.
Now, the piercing whistles – sometimes even audible underwater – of coach Michael Walker, assistant to Lopez, accompany Joseph on his training sets. It is the encouragement and supervision which the swimmer needs.
Said Walker: “He’s a good kid to have around, and when the time comes for the big race, he’s ready to go. But sometimes (in training), he can have lapses of concentration.”
Joseph knows that he is different from most of his peers. That he possesses qualities which elude others. Like an exceptional water feel and good flexibility in the knees and ankles – traits that he has utilised to create a powerful dolphin kick.
He said: “It’s talent, I guess.
“I’m not the hardest worker in the group. But I’m above average and I’ve really been trying to get it up in the past year. I don’t think I’ve worked so hard before in my life.”
Water feel, as Walker describes, is the “ability to hold on to the water and move the water”. This, he believes, is what Joseph excels in.
“Compare Joseph to guys like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Those guys are like monsters. But how does Joseph have a comparable time to them? He’s efficient in the water. He also has very loose ankles and knees that allows him to whip the water.”
Watch a shark in motion, Walker says, adding: “Look at the shark’s fin, and see that last flick. That is where the acceleration comes from. That is what Joseph is able to do with his kick.
“There might be exceptions, but almost all the great underwater kickers have got flexible knees and ankles.”
But for now, the Singaporean is still a class away from the top butterfly specialists of the world. His 200m personal best of 1min 56.67sec clocked last November is three seconds off Phelps’ recent 1:53.65 at the US trials.
Joseph does not need to be reminded of that. He watches and re-watches his opponents compete at the Omaha meet on television, and then again via the Internet on the computer.
His gaze is always intense and for those couple of minutes, nothing distracts him. Not his mother’s gentle reminders to pack his bag, nor her question about whether he has completed his school’s summer readings.
Because right now, London is calling. And to Joseph, there is no other sound that is louder.