SINGAPORE - After clocking 52.09 seconds to finish second in the 100m butterfly at the SNAG Major Games Qualifier on Thursday (March 17) evening, Joseph Schooling came out of the pool smiling.
It may have been over a second slower than the 51.04sec that won him gold at the 2018 Asian Games, but it was still the quickest he had gone in the event in over two years.
His effort at the OCBC Aquatic Centre was also enough to meet the 'A' cuts for this year's Asiad (53sec) and Commonwealth Games (53.11sec). He was joined by race winner Teong Tzen Wei (52.04sec), Quah Zheng Wen (52.86) and Ong Jung Yi (52.93), third and fourth respectively.
"It feels good. My main goal for this was to make Asian Games," said Schooling, who is aiming to retain his 50m and 100m fly titles in Hangzhou. "Without Tzen Wei next to me, I don't think I could have gotten 52, it's way faster than I was at the Olympics."
At Tokyo 2020, Schooling failed to defend his 100m fly crown. He was last in his heats in 53.12sec and ranked 44th out of 55 swimmers.
That was his last competitive outing. The 26-year-old, who enlisted in national service in January, was glad to be back racing, saying: "I'm pretty surprised - I was hurting towards the last 15, trying to get my hand on the wall first, but to be separated by 0.05sec in this current state, I think looking forward to SEA Games and Asian Games is going to be quite exciting. It's given me a renewed amount of excitement and I couldn't ask for more."
Teong, a two-time SEA Games champion (50m freestyle, 50m fly), was content with notching two personal bests on Thursday, although he had hoped to go below 52 seconds.
The 24-year-old said: "I've only been swimming this event for maybe 1 ½ years... I would say I'm a rookie in terms of this event so I'm quite happy to hold myself up against two Olympians (Schooling and Quah).
"I've always been categorised as a sprinter and always doing well in 50s, so it's always been my goal to move towards the 100m because that's where I can potentially go for a relays so I'm happy.
"For me, it's just to try my best because if you keep chasing positions, you will be very disappointed as you can't win every day, you can just try to be the best you can be on the day itself. Today, I'm the best I've ever been in my life so I have to take that and move on."
National head coach Gary Tan was encouraged by his charges performances. He said: "I'm very happy with Joseph. I finally saw a very good fight from him, and coming into this meet, we can see that burning desire to make an impact in the race.
"Kudos also to Tzen Wei, he also did a really good swim and probably helped pull Joseph along as well as the other two - Zheng Wen and Jung Yi. To me, it goes to show that Singapore swimming even though it had a big hump in 2021 from the Olympic Games, this race has given me a good feeling that there are guys stepping up."
Reagan Cheng, 13, on Thursday also rewrote the national boys' Under-14 records in the men's 200m backstroke twice. He bettered his previous national record of 2min 9.97sec with a time of 2:09.89 in the morning heats, before setting a new record of 2:09.05 in the final.