THE audience has left, the pool deck is quiet, the water is unmoving, the champion is still. No rap music in his ears, no goggles across his eyes, no Games record beckoning him. It's late, close to 10pm on Wednesday, and he's sitting on a bench, a tuned but overworked machine that's temporarily switched off. For these few, rare minutes, Joseph Schooling is not performing.
Hi, Joseph. Go, Joseph. Well done, Joseph.
Everywhere he's gone for five days, people want something from him: A smile, a photo, a handshake, a gold medal, a urine sample. He doesn't let himself down because he won't let them down. Toss him an autograph book from the stands, he'll bend, exhausted after a race, and sign. Toss him into the pool and his talent sings. Yesterday, his ninth gold confirmed that Schooling isn't just a swimmer, he is a racer.
Imprinted in the memory is not just the colour of medal, or how many, but how he won. By going fast. He didn't always need to, he could have cruised occasionally and won, but he went fast. Every night, almost every race, as if testing the physical boundaries of his determined youth.
Schooling won the 200m IM by a body length and 100m freestyle by the same margin in the year's 15th fastest time. He took the 200m butterfly by more than a second in the eighth-fastest time by anyone this year and ruled the terse 50m freestyle by .61 of a second. It is a gulf best appreciated by the fact that the gap between second and third was only .03.
Schooling at speed was a sight not just compelling but necessary. For many Singaporeans, his velocity through water was just clips of film from foreign shores, but now it is a truth before their eyes. You heard tales that he's this kid training in America. Doing what? Now you see. You read that he's lucky his national service was deferred. What for? Now you know. Because he's fast and it only comes from labour.
The adoring crowd made Schooling go fast and yet he went fast to make a "statement" to his crowd. He wasn't here to "just swim 90 per cent and out-touch people". Oh no. He wanted to "wreck" the field, to "tell people I am not overhyped, I'm not just a poster boy".
Fast, of course, is relative for these are only the SEA Games and the world is not quite trembling. But fast, day after day, requires discipline; fast demands that athletes dig deep and push through the curtains of fatigue. And if Schooling didn't always reach his best - he set six Games records and had four personal bests - he was always trying his best. As he said, "I was close to 100 per cent, effort-wise" and it is an attitude his Texas coach Eddie Reese approves of. "He didn't just go to win, he made the effort. And it's real hard to swim fast when your competition may not be as high."
Fast is Schooling's art, it's his goal, it burnishes his confidence. If he flies, it sends him up the world rankings. If he's brisk every day it's solid practice, for at August's World Championships, among a flintier field, he'll need to be fast in the heats, the semis, the finals. It is also discovery, for he's never done nine events, never interrogated his body so ruthlessly, and now says: "I think I am fitter and stronger."
But Schooling knows there's no such thing as fast enough, no clock at his age - he turns 20 next week - that can't be beaten, no easing of the pressure. Ask him the hardest part of the Games and he'll tell you it was "not losing". Expected to win, he couldn't afford to lose. Victory was gratifying but defeat would be news.
He'll be just 21 at Rio's Olympics next year, and 25 and stronger at Tokyo 2020, and till he gets there every meet is a Schooling education. This one told him his dives were "too high and too deep" but if he launches awkwardly at least he propels himself fast: In six individual events, thrice he had the fastest reaction time and twice the second-fastest.
His technique will get honed, his body heftier, but the athlete's engine is ambition, that cockiness, that bloody-minded desire, that insistence that sweat can turn dreams into truth. Schooling has this belief and it is boyishly advertised in ink on his shoulder.
It's a tattoo that comes with a history lesson on the Texan Revolution. Ask and he'll recite a complex 1835 tale about a cannon given by the Mexicans to Texan settlers who refused to give it back and then hoisted a flag saying: "Come and take it."
These words have the sound of a challenge, which is why Schooling had them inscribed on him. With the defiance that coats the young athlete, he said: "I'm not going to give anyone anything." He's partially right. He didn't give anyone a single gold, but he did give everyone a week of pleasure. He was fabulous because he was fast. And yet to stay cherished he simply has to go faster.