What made 2015 so special for the five ST Athlete of the Year nominees - Nominee #3: Swimmer Joseph Schooling

Swimming: Joseph Schooling in search of uncharted waters

After record-breaking year, 20-year-old wants more at Olympics

Olympian Joseph Schooling sporting a tattoo of a Longhorn with the words "Come and take it" beneath the symbol. The phrase is what spurs his determination to go even faster.
Olympian Joseph Schooling sporting a tattoo of a Longhorn with the words "Come and take it" beneath the symbol. The phrase is what spurs his determination to go even faster. PHOTO: SINGAPORE SWIMMING ASSOCIATION

Every photograph taken of Joseph Schooling over the past year is reminiscent of a season that, in asking of him like none other before, gave unrivalled triumph in return.

But when the swimmer himself surveys each memory, he is reminded less of the success captured and more of every little thing he still has to do better to be better.

A symbol and four words inked on the back of his shoulder are what he zeroes in on, for they have come to represent his drive.

"It's become a huge part of me," said Schooling of the tattoo he got last April. "I see it in almost every picture of myself. It reminds me of why I'm here."

The silhouette of the Longhorn is an easy reference to the University of Texas where the Singaporean is a student, but the words below it dig deeper into history and signify more than just allegiance to his school.

It is drawn from the Texan Revolution, an 1835 tale that tells of a cannon some Mexicans gave to Texan settlers, who later refused to return it. Instead, the defiant denizens taunted their benefactors with a flag that said, "Come and take it".

It took some convincing for his parents to come round to the idea of a tattoo, but they soon recognised their only child's desire was not a frivolous want.

Said the 20-year-old: "That's basically how I race, my mentality. It reminds (me) to train hard every day, don't take anything for granted, to race hard... it takes you back to your roots.

"I'm never going to give up, I'm never going to let someone beat me that easily. If they want to beat me, they'll have to do something extraordinary."

It is a mantra that has led to what he admits was his "best year yet" and a fourth nomination for The Straits Times' Athlete of the Year award. He was last year's winner.

It started with a successful rookie season at the National Collegiate Athletic Association level, where he won two individual titles and was crowned the Big 12 Conference Men's Newcomer of the Year.

Victory came in June at the SEA Games with Schooling posting a perfect haul of nine golds from as many events. It was also when he broke the longest-standing national record, rewriting Ang Peng Siong's 1982 mark in the 50m freestyle.

But it was in August that he ventured where no Singaporean before him had gone. A sublime swim in the 100m butterfly, a World Championships bronze in Russia and a place for Singapore among the world's best for the first time.

It would seem unfathomable, perhaps even conceited, for Schooling to say he envisioned all of that happening even before the year began.

After all, 2015 was not simply a year of ambitious racing.

It was also his first full year of college - the first time since he left at 14 to train in the United States without at least one parent there with him. From groceries, laundry, to taking care of his studies, schedule, diet and health, this was the year he had to learn independence.

But here is an athlete who admits he yells and throws tantrums in practice when he falls short of his own lofty standards. An athlete who hates it when his coach orders him to rein it in during sets, for if he is not going all out, then why go at all. An athlete who believes that without expectation, there can be no exploits.

He said: "If I never expected, believed in myself, or put myself in a position to have a year like that, then I would never have had a year like that. I would've never got anything accomplished.

"I don't think, 'Wow, I made history,'" he added. "I see my turns, my break-outs, my breathing. I think about all the things I should work on because I want to do things that no one's ever done before."

With the bronze from Kazan, Schooling has already reached new heights. But for him, that is already a thing of the past.

He said: "I'm not No. 1 yet, and I want to be. But I probably won't ever be satisfied, whether I'm an Olympic gold medallist or world record holder. There'll always be something more I want to achieve.

"The World Championships really gave me the confidence to work hard, to know that I'm within striking distance of all these guys, the top guys in the world."

The year he earned a place among the giants of his sport was also the one where he strode into adulthood, and became his own man.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2016, with the headline Swimming: Joseph Schooling in search of uncharted waters. Subscribe