BUDAPEST - The stakes could not be higher for Joseph Schooling as he prepares for Saturday's (July 29) 100m butterfly final at the swimming World Championships knowing that he is under scrutiny from all angles.
The biggest manifestation of this pressure comes from the imposing 1.91m-tall figure of Caeleb Dressel. The 20-year-old American, who is a year younger than Schooling, produced a stunning effort of 50.08 seconds in Friday's morning heats.
Not only was it the fastest time in a textile suit - surpassing Schooling's Olympic record of 50.39sec in Rio - it was recorded about 30 minutes after competing in the 50m freestyle heats. It was also 0.26sec off Michael Phelps' 49.82sec world record set in a now-banned supersuit.
Dressel, who has already won three golds (100m free, 4x100m free and mixed medley) at this world championships, followed those performances with a 50.07sec effort in Friday night's 100m fly semi-finals - again competing about 30 minutes after the 50m free semi-finals - and is the fastest qualifier.
Schooling, after clocking 51.21sec in the heats, swam 50.78sec to win the first semi-final and was fourth-quickest heading into the final at the Danube Arena.
Britain's James Guy (50.67sec) and Hungary's Kristof Milak (50.77sec) were also faster.
Team-mate Quah Zheng Wen missed out on the semi-finals after he finished 18th in the heats in 52.13sec.
Dressel's come-and-catch-me message was heard loud and clear by his rivals.
Schooling said: "Caeleb's been phenomenal, having an amazing meet. No one can touch him right now. It makes for an exciting race tomorrow.
"Everyone's been impressed with how he's swimming and I'm looking forward to the rivalry he and I are going to have for the next few years."
Living under the microscope has been something the Singaporean has had to get used to.
A world-class athlete like him is never going to shy away from challenges and he has shown repeatedly the gumption to rise to the occasion, none more so than in Brazil where he clinched Olympic gold.
But it meant he arrived in Hungary with a reputation to live up to and he set his sights high, targeting world titles in the 50m fly - he broke the Asian record twice but finished fifth - and 100m fly. He also stated he wanted to break Phelps' world record.
A mixed campaign in Budapest - he withdrew from the 200m fly to focus on the 100m free but later said the extra day's rest was counterproductive as he struggled to refind his racing rhythm - follows an indifferent year of performances.
He said he lost focus after Rio and failed to defend both his 100-yard and 200-yard fly titles at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Championships in March.
He also lost to Dressel in the 50-yard free and 100-yard fly - and left without an individual title.
A showdown awaits and Schooling, chest puffed out and backed into the corner, must be ready. He loves nothing more than a fight.