Silver not enough

I don't care if I break the world record and get a silver or bronze, I still lost. It's all about winning. '' JOSEPH SCHOOLING, on the 100m butterfly Olympic gold he wants.

For roughly 50 seconds this morning, expect many places in Singapore to come to a standstill.

In homes across the island, at neighbourhood coffee shops where heartlanders have their breakfast, Singaporeans will stop whatever they are doing to will a young man halfway across the world to make Singapore sporting history.

For at 9.12am, Joseph Isaac Schooling, 21, will be at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro - not as a mere participant in the 100m butterfly final, but as the world's best this year, and the one to beat.

He will swim in Lane 4, a place reserved for the fastest finalist and where expectations will weigh heavily on his broad shoulders.

He clocked 50.83sec in the semi- finals on Thursday night (Brazil time), and he is well placed to create something special.

His time puts him eighth on the all-time list, including times clocked in the now-banned supersuits.

But he will not be the only history maker in that pool.

The greatest Olympian of all time lurks in Lane 2. American Michael Phelps, 31, defying logic and age, has yet to lose any of his four finals so far in Rio. He will be gunning for another gold to add to his astounding tally of 22 over five Games.

I don’t care if I break the world record and get a silver or bronze, I still lost. It’s all about winning.

JOSEPH SCHOOLING, on the 100m butterfly Olympic gold he wants.

When Schooling lets out an "ooh!" as he often does on the starting block, Chad le Clos, on his immediate left, will likely hear it clearest. South Africa's star swimmer is a two-time world champion in this event and also a winner on the Olympic stage.

Five-time Olympic medallist Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, backed by the experience of swimming in big finals, is also in the group.

Still, Schooling has proven before that what many thought implausible - that a small nation like Singapore can contend at the highest level in a sport like swimming - is simply something for him to make possible. His bronze medal from last year's World Championships - he went from the oft-overlooked Lane 1 to the podium - is proof.

As Singapore's first male Olympic swimming finalist, he attracts adoration and will draw the attention of even those who are not sports fans.

His mother, Mrs May Schooling, will be in the audience, dressed in red and often seen with a Singapore banner held aloft over her head.

She has endured countless nerve- racking moments watching her only child compete, including at his first Olympics in London in 2012. But no occasion has come with as much passion, pride and promise as today's race.

She thumbed through close to 300 - and counting - messages that came through her phone into the wee hours of the night.

She revealed that Jo, as he is affectionately known, is "in the zone". It has showed. There have been no wefies with celebrity athletes at the Athletes' Village. Headphones cover his ears when he leaves the Village for competition, literally and figuratively tuning out the noise around him.

He relaxes by watching comedy videos on YouTube, and has got tonic in the form of a visit and a big hug from mum in the Village.

Even in the chaotic post-race environment of the media mixed zone, Schooling has kept collected and looked confident.

To catch Thursday's race, President Tony Tan Keng Yam went from the airport to the aquatics stadium immediately after a 30-hour journey to Brazil. He was joined by International Olympic Committee member Ng Ser Miang.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, who is also president of the Singapore National Olympic Council, had his camera trained on Schooling. Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu was also there.

President Tan said in a Facebook post after watching Schooling's semi-final win: "We often underestimate the years of hard work, of preparation, because a race like the 100m fly concludes in just under a minute, barely a blink of an eye."

Today, Dr Tan will be present to again cheer him on, as will millions at home.

In 50 seconds this morning, history could be made for ever for Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2016, with the headline 'Silver not enough'. Print Edition | Subscribe