Retirement a ‘good option’ for Joseph Schooling, say former swimmers Tao Li, David Lim

Former Olympic champion Joseph Schooling sparked off lively debate recently, when he announced his withdrawal from May’s SEA Games. Many asked if we had seen the last of Singapore’s biggest sports star, who was embroiled in a drugs scandal in 2022. On The Straits Times’ new podcast series ST’s Hard Tackle, former national swimmers David Lim and Tao Li, a two-time Asian Games champion who was also Schooling’s teammate, speak to Deepanraj Ganesan about the swimmer’s future. This is an excerpt from their discussion.

Singapore's Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling sparked off lively debate when he announced his withdrawal from the Cambodia SEA Games in May. PHOTO: ST FILE

Q: What is the legacy that Schooling has left in Singapore?

David Lim: There is no doubt that he is one-of-a-kind. It’s going to take a long time before an athlete from Singapore is going to win the gold medal at the Olympics and he did it in a sport where it is participated by 160 or 170 countries, instead of some obscure sport. So I tip my hat to him, he did very well and we are all so proud of him.

Tao Li: I think he has achieved something that we as swimmers only dream of – to win an Olympic gold medal.

Q: David, you were in national service (NS) before – how tough is it to still train? Did you feel that your levels dropped?

Lim: Back then, we were given time off to come out and train full time. And we did that diligently, honestly. You just produce the goods and nobody questions you. But right now, from what I read, getting time off to train is tough (for Schooling) and I can imagine that it is going to be doubly or triply hard for a full-time athlete to get back to the levels that they want to.

Q:  If Schooling is not able to train as regularly, what kind of impact does it have on an athlete’s body?

Tao Li: For my body shape, if I stopped training, I will put on weight and the coach has to remind me not to eat too much. Secondly, for training, you lose the water feel. If you don’t train for one day, you need double the time to get back to where you were before. For water sports, you have to swim every single day. And if you don’t swim, you are out of shape very quickly.

Q: What is the difference between training on your own during your free time and the training that national swimmers undergo?

Lim: If you’re training alone and you don’t have the drive and motivation, or somebody on deck to drive you and to motivate you, to push you, it is totally different. It is more like casual swimming instead of real training.

Tao Li: Actually, I trained alone for a week when I was preparing for my 2008 Olympics. And then the Singapore Sports School hired two men from China to do sparring with me. So I think the sparring partners are extremely important because if I don’t have someone to pace me, I will (not be able to) hit the intensity that I should be hitting. In the Olympics, every 0.1, 0.2 second counts.

Q: Do you think it is over for Schooling? Can he make a comeback?

Tao Li: To be honest, life is not just about swimming for him and for everyone else, right? He has already achieved an Olympic gold medal. If it is over for him, it’s fair enough... it’s good for him to try something else rather than just swimming.

Lim: Based on his current circumstances on training limits and time off and all that, I don’t think so. It is going to be very hard for him to get to the levels that he is used to... or even the public has been used to. And you don’t want to keep on putting in disappointing swims and performances and get flak. I think retirement may be a good option.

Q: Do you still think he can return for the Asian Games?

Tao Li: If I were him, I would choose to retire. To be honest, I don’t think that he will add some levels back to get to the Asian Games and win a gold.

Q: Is there a possibility that Schooling pulled out of the SEA Games because he wants to focus on the Asian Games?

Lim: No, because for athletes like Tao Li and Joseph, every meet contributes to the next. Even in preparing for the Asian Games, the SEA Games would be a good stepping stone because the competition is not as tough. And when you get to the Asian Games, you got the big boys like China, Japan and South Korea... These are no pushovers and if you get to that stage, and you are putting all your eggs in that basket, then (you would) be sorely mistaken because you’re going to be taken to the cleaners.

Q: From an athlete’s perspective, how hard is it to find motivation again when you have already achieved the ultimate goal?

Lim: Your stance will be different because the first time you win it, you approach it wanting to win it, but the second time, you want to protect it. You want to defend it. We need to go back and analyse what was the winning formula for Joseph in 2016. And as I look back, I realise that he did his best when he was hungry and he was motivated in 2016 because he was at the University of Texas, training under Eddie Reese. And my question which was never answered: Why didn’t he go back to Eddie Reese after the 2016 Olympic Games? And no one could provide me an answer. So my analogy is that, if you had Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen on your team, and you want to keep them winning championships year after year, why would you want to break up a winning formula?

Q: If you were in Schooling’s position, and you had just won the Olympic gold, what would be your mentality?

Tao Li: Actually, I was in his shoes before. In 2008, I finished fifth in the Olympics and then I told myself that I should be getting a medal (at the next Olympics), but it’s hard. It’s hard and the environment needs to be one where everyone wants it, where everybody trains like you and push you. If they are all world champions and you see them push themselves each day, it is easier for you as a motivation. I was training all alone in Singapore where everyone wants to study or they want to go to school, so it’s quite easy to be distracted.

Q: Whose responsibility was it to keep him in check?

Lim: Well I would expect somebody to, but apparently nobody had that role. I think the closest person was Joseph’s dad Colin, and Joseph needed somebody to be holding his hand and saying, you can do this, you cannot do that. And when he came back to Singapore after the gold medal, there wasn’t that one person who took up that role, led him and guided him.

Q: What lessons can we draw from this?

Lim: I just felt that we could have managed Joseph a bit better and that maybe this came as a surprise and the Singapore Swimming Association and Sport Singapore were not prepared. And everybody wanted a piece of him when he came back... and he needed to have proper guidance.

Q: Is a comeback out of the question?

Tao Li: I think that he may compete, but if we are asking for another gold medal or another Olympic Games, it is too much for him. It’s best to let him rest and then choose the life he wants. If he wants to compete, it’s his choice. If he doesn’t want to do it, it’s okay. He can play golf, he’s a good golfer. He can do other things. He is only in his 20s. If he stops here, it’s enough for him.

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