TOKYO - “Damn, like come on, that sucks.”
It is the day after Joseph Schooling’s swim, the swim he has not watched a recording of and does not plan to, the swim whose slow time left him with that disapproving reaction.
The Singaporean is back at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, a loose-limbed young man clad in red T-shirt, dark grey shorts and humility. His chance of a second gold has temporarily passed and though winning and losing is like breathing to him the defeat is still raw.
“I’ve slept better,” he says. “I slept better after 2016. It’s part of the job. I’ve had restless nights before, I’ll continue to have restless nights in the future. So right now it’s just trying to process everything and be as chill as possible.”
He does not cry, it is not his style, but he says he gets “upset and angry”. In his deepest self he knows he is a better swimmer than 53.12 seconds in the 100m butterfly.
His Olympic record of 50.39 seconds is gone – Caeleb Dressel timed 49.71 in the semi-finals, just before our chat – and it has to sting, but nothing stays in sport and he acknowledges the sweat of his peers.
“It just shows that the sport is growing, people are getting faster, and Caeleb (Dressel) and (Kristof) Milak have worked their butts off for it. So they deserve it.”
Thursday night was quiet in the Village. He spoke to his parents, May and Colin, and is grateful that his father, who has liver cancer, is making progress.
“He’s doing well, thanks for asking. He’s gone through some immunotherapy. He’s gone through like two sessions of it. So the pain in his legs are gone. As long as he’s not in pain and he’s getting better, then I’m happy. But definitely learning that your dad has cancer is tough."
Athletes learn to compartmentalise, to put hardship into boxes in the brain, and push on. And even though Schooling clarifies his dad’s illness had no bearing on his performance, it is a taxing experience for a 26-year-old. “It’s almost,” he says, “like a movie right, it’s so surreal.”
Tough defeats can leave athletes uncertain about how people will react, but Singapore has mostly embraced its champion. In hard times people turn to sport for escape and when they feel let down they can be cruel. But a grateful Schooling says all he has felt is “empathy”.
“I think it’s such a hard year... People are losing their lives, people losing their jobs, their homes. So, automatically, people tend to gravitate to something like the Olympics or some sporting event.
“And with everything that we’ve gone through I am surprised at how many people – whether I talk to them daily, weekly, once a year, once a decade – have come out to show their support and say, ‘We’re all with you’. I haven’t seen any negative comments, at least directly to me, and I’m sure there will be. It’s part of the job.”
Schooling might outwardly seem his usual self, his smile easy, his face alive, yet there is a coating of sadness to him. Not because he lost, but because he was not close to his fastest self. “The speed is in there for sure”, he tells us, which is why he wants to keep swimming.
Everyone wants to know what happened but defeat, like victory, is complicated. Maybe only from Saturday, when he lands in Singapore and serves his Stay At Home Notice, will be able to process his last five years in solitude.
But this much he knows, it is not physical or technical, it is about what happens inside his head. It is about “trust”, not in his skill but in his coaches. There is no fault here, only the luxury of hindsight.
“It’s all about trusting the coaches, trusting that people do their job and just kind of let go. My only job should be focusing 110 per cent in the pool, not worrying about like, ‘Is this set correct, is that set correct’.”
Back then, after Rio, Schooling was the fastest butterfly swimmer in the world and of course he wanted a hand in his future because he cared for his future. Swimming was not a plaything for him, it was serious business. He has no regret about questioning his coaches, but he realised that he should more fully embrace the process laid out for him.
“There was a sense (especially in a new programme) of, ‘I think I should be doing this and I shouldn’t be doing that’. But I think it takes a meet like this, at this stage, to realise that if you want to improve, you need to do things differently.”
In short, arguing consumes energy and doubting can waste time. With an honesty that speaks of his character, he says: “What I’ve learned is that if you want to question it, there’s a way to. You don’t act out. You always be respectful. And there’s always a right way to communicate... I think once you get angry and you have those outbursts, it’s tiring isn’t it.”
Greatness arrives only from reflection and Schooling is on his way. The one thing that was evident in his words, almost an urgency, was his eagerness to keep racing. This career is not over.
National Service will inevitably come calling, but he hopes it will not be before next year’s Asian Games. “That (being called up to serve) would be tough for sure,” he says “because I got so much more left in the tank.”
Wounded athletes often want to prove things to themselves, recommitting to pain, believing that if they dig hard and deep they will excavate more talent. But Schooling, rather poignantly, says swimming fast again is not about himself. Because before him lies a larger cause.
“Like before it might have been just to show to myself and show my family. But honestly, man, after all the support that's coming out, like people just reaching out, and like I said they don’t owe me anything, they didn’t have to do that but they do anyway, that gives me something more to swim for. Maybe that’s what I need.”
It has been a pensive afternoon but a young man’s sense of humour is still intact. At one points he tells us, “the most embarrassing thing was placing last in my heat and getting drug-tested”.
“Like, come on, man,” he laughs. “Are you serious?”
When the interview was done, Schooling walked onto the empty pool deck, past the TV cameras and the vacant podium, to be photographed. Five years ago in Rio he smiled as he walked down this territory for he was the owner of the podium.
But he did not flinch, or reach for the past, or feel the tug of nostalgia. Hurting champions only move at one speed and in one resolute direction.
Fast and forward.