Olympic golden boy Joseph Schooling retires from swimming

Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling has retired from competitive swimming. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Eight years after his stunning success at the Rio Olympics, Singapore’s greatest athlete Joseph Schooling has called time on his career.

The 28-year-old swimmer, whose last major medal came at the 2021 SEA Games, told The Straits Times that he is going to play golf and work in the venture capital space with two partners in the sectors of “health and wellness, tech and sustainability”.

Singapore’s only Olympic champion, who won a 100m butterfly gold in 2016 against a field studded with talent including American legend Michael Phelps, said in an exclusive interview with ST that “it’s kind of surreal to actually be going to a swimming pool and spectating instead of competing”.

The highly competitive son of Colin and May Schooling said he was both lucky and thankful for his parents, his coaches and his support team.

They gave him, he said, “the opportunity to be able to freely express who I am in the water. No judgment, no hesitation, complete trust and love”. “To have to leave all that behind. Yeah, it sucks.”

Schooling’s career was not without bumps, most famously, the revelation in 2022 that he had consumed cannabis overseas.

For an athlete who considers himself a role model for young people, it was a situation both “embarrassing and humiliating”.

Schooling was named Sportsman of the Year six times, including five consecutive times from 2015-19.

His career started to flatten out after two gold medals in the 50m and 100m butterfly at the 2018 Asian Games.

His winning time in Rio of 50.39 seconds was an Olympic record, but he never swam as fast again.

Swimmer Joseph Schooling after winning gold in the men's 100m butterfly final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. PHOTO: ST FILE

The reasons were many and complex, but Schooling – who suffered from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine –candidly admitted to “complacency” after Rio. He was faster than everyone and expected to remain so.

Did he lack the same focus after 2016, he was asked, and he replied: “I would say the first year, yes. Second year, I was playing catch-up. And then the third year, I was just overthinking.”

But Schooling, after gruelling years in pursuit of his Olympic dream, was also tired and believes he should have stepped away for a while and returned renewed.

Schooling’s Olympic gold, which propelled Singapore into international headlines, was the result of his parents’ belief in his talent and their bravery in making the financial commitment to send him to The Bolles School in the United States.

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In Bolles, coach Sergio Lopez became his “father figure”, and the testing environment focused his competitiveness.

“If you want to be the best,” explained Schooling, “you’ve got to be surrounded by the best. You’re a by-product of your atmosphere.”

After Bolles, Schooling joined the University of Texas, where he was mentored by the legendary Eddie Reese.

Asked if he would have won Olympic gold without Reese, the Singaporean paused briefly: “I think I would have, but I wouldn’t have had as much fun doing so.”

In Rio 2016, apart from nerves on the bus ride to the stadium, Schooling believed it was his race to lose.

In the call room, he thought: “OK, I’m about to do something really special...

“And once I felt like I had my foot down, there was no way I was gonna let up.”

(From left) Chad le Clos, Michael Phelps and Joseph Schooling with their medals after the men’s 100m butterfly final in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on Aug 12, 2016. PHOTO: ST FILE

Singapore welcomed him home with a bus-top parade, and Schooling’s influence on young athletes in small ways is evident.

“People want to be athletes,” he said, “or people want to go to the Olympics one day, or start a sport.”

And, he continued, “more importantly than that, I think when people look at that, they think, OK, this guy, scoliosis, he’s in the Olympic final, he beats the greats, if he can do it, why not me?”

As legacies go, there can be no better one.

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