Few 16-year-olds go into the SEA Games for the first time as favourites for gold. Fewer still devour the pressure and scrutiny that come with it.
“I just love it when people talk,” says Joseph Schooling, the boy who would be South-east Asia’s new king of the butterfly. “It just fuels me.
“Some people hear criticism and they start taking it on as pressure. But I like to use it and swim faster.”
The statement is delivered in a soft voice. It comes from a baby-faced teenager who is straddling the awkward years between pubescent growth and manhood. It also sums up the contradiction that is Joseph, who has four national records, four Asean Schools Games gold medals and a whole lot of self-confidence.
Make no mistake though – this Singapore boy is fast. Ridiculously fast.
In just under three months, he obliterated six national records, in the 50m, 100m and 200m fly, as well as the 200m individual medley.
He is so quick, his personal bests in all three fly events would have won him gold medals at the previous Games in Laos two years ago.
Here is the clincher: The gold-medallists in Vientiane used the controversial supersuits to clock faster times. The suits are now banned, but this Joseph does not need a dreamcoat to fly.
“I stepped up my practice a lot,” says the sophomore at the Bolles School in Florida, where he trains under coach Sergio Lopez. Under the American, Joseph shaved six seconds off his best time in the 200m fly in just three months.
“I asked my coach how that happened, and he said, ‘Your practice helped a lot’. After I heard that, I just went back and practised harder.”
Joseph is growing in stature – quite literally. Over the last 12 months, he has added 5cm to his height. Now 1.82m-tall, he is in the midst of the growth spurt, which means he can only get taller, stronger and faster.
“I think my leg strength has improved a lot, but my kicking still needs work,” he admits. “My flip turns are really slow too. During competition, I would always lose because of my turns, so I got really mad and kept working and working on it.”
It is easy to forget that Joseph is not yet old enough to drink or drive, but it is clear that he is driven. An Olympic medal at the 2016 Games in Brazil is his ultimate goal, with a dress rehearsal looming next year in London.
“Seeing guys like Michael Phelps or Ian Thorpe standing on that podium – it’s really cool,” said Joseph, who went to the 2008 Beijing Games as a spectator.
“When you’re first, everyone has to stand and your national anthem gets played. It’s what I want.”
The bubble tea-loving teenager insists that swimming is not an obsession. He enjoys golf with his father, the odd game of tennis and is a Chelsea football fan. But, when the going gets tough, the tough get back into the water.
“When I feel down, I just swim and it clears my mind,” he says. “When I was younger, I used to think that the bubbles you create during kicking are amusing, so I kept turning around to see them.”
There is no looking back now.
Joseph’s first step on the long road to Rio begins next week in Palembang, where he is hoping to meet the Olympic A qualifying mark of 1min 56.86sec for the 200m fly – which will give him an automatic ticket to London 2012.
His current best of 1:58.95 has already dipped under the Olympic B mark of 2:00.95, but is still more than two seconds shy of the A time.
There is also the small matter of beating the region’s best swimmers.
Malaysian star and defending 100m and 200m fly champion Daniel Bego is unlikely to be at his best, even if he recovers in time from a shoulder injury. In the event of his absence, swimmers from host nation Indonesia and Vietnam will be his biggest rivals.
“It’s the biggest meet of my life so far,” said Joseph, who skipped the Florida state championships to represent his country. “But there’s no pressure. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I’ll just go back and train harder.”