Let's be grateful for Joseph Schooling. Let’s accept that in a somewhat sportingly impoverished nation he is giving us a rare opportunity to take a world-class journey with him through an athletic life. Think of it as an education. It’s not about where it ends, it’s about appreciating this manic ride of no guarantee through improvement, stagnation, despair, triumph.
Let’s watch. Let’s learn.
Let’s not overrate him or casually demean him. Let’s not travel from calling him a disappointment after two average races to national treasure after a silver medal. Let’s be consistent and cool, which is what we want him to be.
Let’s not diminish him as all hype without wondering who created it. Not him. As Edwin Ker, executive director of the Singapore Swimming Association, wrote in a thoughtful Facebook post: “He didn’t set himself the target to medal. Singapore set it for him.”
Let’s not say he’s “finally” won a medal because “finally” would be appropriate if he went to three Commonwealth Games and won a medal in his last attempt at 28 years. These are his first Games, at 19, ending with four national records and a silver. You can spin it any way you want but you can’t come up with underachieving.
Let’s not call his silver a “redemption” because is coming seventh in the 50m and eighth in the 200m butterfly – we’re taking final appearances from him as granted – a “sin”? Let’s expect of him, let’s even criticise him when necessary, but let’s try and keep it in perspective.
He has a body not fully developed yet is pushing it through multiple events in a high-pressure environment; he’s aware as he readies himself to race Olympic champions that people may wonder if he deserves national service deferment; he crouches on the starting blocks knowing that a first-ever Commonwealth Games swimming medal by a Singaporean is considered his duty. It’s unnerving to think about, it’s amazing to do.
Let’s, in a sense, be glad he was “moody” after his setbacks in those two races. There’s even talk he cried. Good. Defeat for the best athletes is akin to an excruciating pain and this shows he was hurting, it shows he cared, it shows he demands from himself, it shows he’s only learning to negotiate the complicated pathways of sport. On the day of the 200m race, disconsolate, defeated, despairing, he ignored a Straits Times reporter. Yet the next day, on his own, he came up to the reporter and apologised. That’s class.
Let’s consider that Schooling’s only an apprentice in competitive terms, still trying to find the requisite emotional control that champions own. It’s an ability to block out noise, doubt, nation, camera, rivals, questions, criticism, medal, headlines, visits from presidents and just focus on start, stroke, turn. Not just in one heat, but every heat, every race, every day.
Let’s be clear, he’s fast, but he has to be fast enough among faster men on days even when he’s not himself. It’s why these Games are vital as an experience; it’s why the SEA Games can only teach you so much.
Let’s allow him his mistakes, for they are better now at 19 than at 25. He wore swim shorts too tight and that’s his fault and it’s a lesson for a kid who carried the incorrect cap to the 2012 Olympics that greatness is born of the tiniest detail.
Let’s let him stumble because everyone does. Greatness isn’t a switch you casually flick on, it’s about slowly laying the wiring across years. Let’s also stop – and I am telling myself this, too – mentioning Michael Phelps in the same sentence as him because one swimmer is unique and the other’s just ours.
Let’s admire his honesty, in saying he’d been too “tense” early in the Games, in stating after the 50m butterfly that “when I saw Chad (le Clos), I rushed my strokes and messed up my breathing”. Let’s be impressed that he didn’t fold thereafter, that he wore defeat, dried his tears, collected his courage, re-tuned his mind, remembered his technique and fought back to win silver. That’s character.
Let’s understand why the first emotion he felt was “relief”.
Let’s have fun riding with Schooling. Let’s not get irritated if he doesn’t win but only if he doesn’t try and there is no evidence of it. Let’s censure him if he’s a prima donna but he, with that smile, is anything but that.
So let’s have faith in him. Let’s show it, too. At this Games, Scottish crowds have embraced their athletes, whether first or fifth or 15th and this is when sport elevates itself and often so does the athlete. When he knows his nation is in his corner, win or lose, he often flies.