Joseph Schooling: Swimming his way to destiny at the London Olympics

“I’m not expecting to win an Olympic medal yet, but I’m hoping to at least make the semi-finals,” says 17-year-old swimmer Joseph Schooling.
“I’m not expecting to win an Olympic medal yet, but I’m hoping to at least make the semi-finals,” says 17-year-old swimmer Joseph Schooling.PHOTO: ST FILE

Sport runs in his family – and the teen is set to make a big splash

Maybe it was written in the stars. Or at least in the genes. 

After all, his granduncle Lloyd Valberg competed at the Olympics in 1948; his mother May, 57, a self-declared “tomboy”, was a state tennis player; his father Colin, 64, was a hurdler and water- polo player who represented Singapore in softball. 

Maybe it was ordained, and inevitable, that Joseph Schooling, 17, an only child from a 29-year marriage, was to become an athlete in his own right.

The London-bound teenager leans back into his chair and entertains that idea for a while. Then he rejects it: “Sport runs in my family. Both my parents are athletic and I think that influenced me.

“But life is a choice. I could be a school dropout, or janitor, or I could be studying 24/7. I didn’t have to be a swimmer.”

It is a choice, says his mother May, that he made for himself at a very young age. From the time he learnt to walk at 10 months, Joseph would “head straight to any pool of water he could see”. On family holidays he would weep and refuse to leave the hotel room’s bathtub unless the beach was the next destination.

So learning to swim, she explains, became a priority for “water safety”. From merely mastering a lifesaving skill, Joseph has come a long way. 

In London – where he is the only Singaporean to qualify directly by meeting the “A” timing in the 200m butterfly – he will represent the Republic’s biggest hope as the first Singaporean man to make a swimming final.

But his journey to the Olympics, a dream that has taken him 16,000km from home to train and study at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, hasn’t been easy. Says Joseph, who struggled with homesickness in his first year as a Grade 8 student in 2009: “I was depressed every other day. I didn’t want to swim at all. I was so down that sometimes I think I tricked myself into believing I was sick. It was a miserable year.”

The thought of freedom, which sounded so exciting at first, was replaced by loneliness.

Olympic dreams require a combination of will and effort – not just from the athlete, but also from his family. Joseph’s parents understood that. So they bought a house and two cars in Jacksonville; they ensured one parent was always with him in America while the other took care of their tobacco business in Singapore.

Sergio Lopez, head coach of Joseph’s swim team, the Bolles Sharks, helped as well. He still has weekly “one-on-one time” with his swimmers. 

Says Joseph: “That really helped me a lot. Sergio is like my second dad. Our conversations help us build a strong relationship and we can talk about anything, whatever we have on our minds.”

These days, there is only one thing that is on young Schooling’s mind – London.

He says: “I’m still a teenager and I’ll do my best. I’m not expecting to win an Olympic medal yet, but I’m hoping to at least make the semi-finals.”

A place in the finals or even an Olympic medal eventually is on the cards, and Joseph, with time on his side, has four Olympic attempts before he reaches age 30.

Lopez, 43, declines to predict how his charge would fare in London, saying: “You would be surprised. If he allows himself to see how good he can be, he’s going to swim very well. I want him to understand he belongs in that place, that he belongs among the best.”

What Joseph’s destiny is, in London and beyond, remains to be seen. But we know this: His destiny hasn’t been written for him; he is only beginning to write it himself, slowly and steadily, with his long, powerful arms.