Joseph Schooling is a young man of contradiction – he is quiet and loud all at once.
Singapore’s most promising swimmer speaks so quietly, you have to strain to hear him. When teenage girls ask for photographs at swim meets, he obliges, shyly.
Yet, Joseph announced his arrival on the swimming scene with a roar. The 16-year-old bagged three national records in five days at the National Swimming Championships last month.
The headlines said it all: “Butterfly king”, “A class act”, “A gem in the making”.
It was quite the homecoming party. Two years ago, he slipped away to Florida to study at The Bolles School, a college preparatory institution in Jacksonville.
The 1.82m tall former Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) student certainly has a focused mind.
A video of American swim star and 14-time Olympic gold-medallist Michael Phelps’ world-record 200m butterfly swim (1min 51.51sec) at the 2009 Rome World Championships plays repeatedly on his computer screen.
Joseph’s businessman father Colin said: “When I check on him at night, he’s watching Phelps’ races. That’s what he loves.”
“1,2,3,” the teen mutters, counting the number of underwater kicks his hero takes after every turn, then “19, 20, 21”, the number of strokes he registers to complete every 50m. Then he clicks the replay button, again and again, watching the man he accompanied on a monkey-sighting trip when the United States team trained here before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Nothing Joseph does is in half-measures.
May, his mother, said: “It’s almost like he’s eating 24 hours a day. That’s why I have to keep my fridge stocked all the time.”
Sometimes it is a healthy snack of boiled broccoli. When The Sunday Times visited him at his five-room apartment at Marine Parade, five empty ice-cream packets lay in the waste bin.
“That’s what I’ve been eating while waiting,” he said, offering one, before starting on another himself, finishing first.
Perhaps his competitive nature has its roots in grand-uncle Lloyd Valberg, a high-jumper who was Singapore’s first competitor at the Olympics in 1948.
Colin documents his son’s achievements in a 10cm-thick file.
Starting with Joseph’s first race, a five-years-and-under 21m freestyle-kick at a Singapore Island Country Club junior meet, in which he set a new record of 18.39sec, the dossier has details of all his competitions.
But it is the boy’s progress over the last two years, when he grew by 10cm, that has amazed the local swimming community.
He was ranked the fastest in the United States for his age in the 100 yards butterfly (short-course) last year.
Then he put his stamp on Singapore’s National Championships by claiming the butterfly throne in record-breaking times of 54.19sec (100m) and 2:00.05 (200m).
And, to prove naysayers that he was not a one-trick pony, he took the 200m individual medley record with a time of 2:05.07. He made a splash again yesterday at the Asean School Games.
His times have improved even beyond coach Sergio Lopez’s expectations. In June 2009, before he left for Florida, he was swimming 58.10 and 2:11.36 in the 100m and 200m fly.
Lopez believes Joseph has what it takes to compete at the very top as a senior swimmer.
“His level of training is getting better every day,” said the coach.
“He has a natural instinct in the water – how to position himself, how to move his body at high speed.
“That is very hard to teach. He has a gift with his kick and the way his feet feel the water. And he hates to lose.”
His move to Florida also meant a change in work-ethic amid a competitive training culture.
“I didn’t do so well in my first year at Bolles as I was still adapting and not really serious in training,” he said.
“But the environment there, where everyone wants to be the best, pushed me every day.”
Being in the US has also allowed him to compete in top races such as the Indianapolis Grand Prix in March, when he swam in the same 100m fly event as Phelps.
The American won the event in 51.75sec, while the Singaporean clocked 55.39.
But Joseph has never approached or spoken to his idol since their meeting in Singapore.
When his father asked him why, he brushed it aside. He did not say it, but maybe the teen feels that he needs to achieve something first.
Maybe that moment will come at the 2016 Rio Olympics, from where he hopes to return with a medal.
“Hi Michael, I’m the boy who sat with you in the golf-cart,” he will quietly say.