Swimming: Joseph Schooling was done, and then he changed his mind about retiring

Singapore's sole Olympic champion was pictured relaxed and trim at the Tanah Merah Country Club on April 23, 2022. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - For a brief few hours this year, Joseph Schooling decided he was done with swimming and ready to hang up his swim trunks and goggles.

This was in the period after his meek showing at the Tokyo Olympics last August and his next race seven months later at the Singapore National Age Group Championships (SNAG).

"I actually retired for a few hours on a given day before the SNAG," he revealed in an interview with The Straits Times on Saturday (April 23) afternoon.

Singapore's sole Olympic champion, who looked relaxed and trim in a white polo tee and navy shorts at the Tanah Merah Country Club, said that he made that decision not because he no longer had the motivation to compete, but "due to existential circumstances".

He had endured a difficult six months that would rock many off course.

After failing to retain his 100m fly gold in Tokyo, he suffered the loss of his father Colin, a figure pivotal to his success. Colin died in November aged 73, after a battle with liver cancer.

Still reeling, Schooling enlisted for national service (NS) two months later and the pool was no longer his main place of work for the first time in his life.

Some wrote him off from returning to the top level, given the difficulties juggling NS commitments and elite sport.

Maybe Schooling had his doubts too. Thankfully, his retirement was short-lived.

His reason for continuing is simple. He said: "I still have a lot of goals and things I want to prove to myself."

At the SNAG, he clocked 23.78sec in the 50m fly and 52.09sec in the 100m fly - over a second quicker than his time in Tokyo - to earn a spot at the May 11-23 SEA Games in Hanoi and Sept 10-25 Asian Games in Hangzhou.

Asked how he pulled off the improvement, he smiled and said: "Clear and concise goals, and a lot of discipline and time management."

For the past two months he has trained twice a day, six days a week, before and after his nine-hour-plus basic supply course at the Changi Naval Base.

He is up before the sun rises almost every day and gets to bed at 9pm every night. It is a wearisome regimen.

But he added: "At the end of the day, you do what you have to do. You don't complain about it, you don't moan.

"My priorities are my goals in the pool. If I need to shut out my social life and not be able to hang out with my friends for a couple of months, then that is a trade-off I would gladly take because I have the rest of my life after swimming to do those things.

"So yes it is tiring, it is tough. But... all I need to know is if it's possible (to pull off). Whether it's tough or not, I don't really care."

Joseph Schooling explained he made the retirement decision "due to existential circumstances". ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Schooling says his mind is clearer and shoulders lighter too, now having a more focused motivation for when he competes.

He now swims for his late dad and himself.

"Swimming has a very finite timeline. I'm not going to be swimming for very much longer... Maybe one more Olympic cycle, maybe not. I don't know yet," said Schooling, who turns 27 in June.

"What I do know is that maybe something clicked after dad passed. I don't know what it is. I feel a lot less stress.

"It's more of I want to do this for me, rather than for the outside reasons and pressures."

And what he has chosen for 2022 is to compete at only the SEA and Asian Games, opting out of the June 18-July 3 World Championships in Budapest and July 28-Aug 8 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

He chose not to try and peak for all four major competitions as he needed "to be realistic about getting certain training cycles and periods in", given his juggling act with training and NS commitments.

A group of fans taking pictures with Joseph Schooling at Tanah Merah Country Club on April 23, 2022. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

But he is clear about what he wants in Hanoi and Hangzhou.

"To win," he said. "I want to go best times or as close to my best times. I want to give it my best. I want to stand on top of the podium for my country again. I want all of the above."

While he said he has not looked beyond Hangzhou in September, Schooling said whether he makes a tilt for the 2024 Paris Olympics depends on two factors.

First, if his mother May is still able to "hold the fort" with his swim school, and second, if his schedule during NS permits him to train and recover adequately.

Even if he ends up not having a go at qualifying for Paris, Schooling insists he would have "no regrets".

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With retirement firmly on the backburner for now, Schooling is only looking forward.

He plans to keep his hectic training schedule as it is, right up to the SEA Games.

"If I need a break along the line, then sure," he said. "But as of right now, my mind's clear, I'm in a good spot, I feel energised.

"One thing I've learnt over the years is that if you feel good, don't (hold) back, just keep going.

"Because you never know when you're going to feel good again. Take advantage while there's an advantage to be taken."

Schooling delivered this line with the candour and wisdom of a man who has taken his share of hits. But as he has declared, he is not quite done yet.

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