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Joseph Schooling: Painful journey last year made me appreciate what I have more

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This feature is part of Yahoo News Singapore's series of previews ahead of the SEA Games, which will be held from 12 to 23 May in Hanoi.

SINGAPORE — Joseph Schooling arrived at the interview location 15 minutes late, and immediately apologised for his tardiness after an earlier photo shoot overran.

He offered to buy a round of coffee for the journalists who had waited patiently for the opportunity to chat with him amid his busy schedule, which now includes his national service stint at Changi Naval Base.

Close by, his mother - a warm, gregarious person whom many affectionately call Auntie May - gave out hugs to the sports reporters, many of whom have had built good relationships with the family as Joseph made headlines throughout the past decade.

All sunny smiles and relaxed, the 26-year-old Schooling plopped down onto a cosy chair beside the Tanah Merah Country Club pool last month — and bared his thoughts on what was surely the darkest period he has had to endure amid his wildly successful swimming career.

"In and out of the pool, 2021 was a terrible year. There's no other way to say it," he told Yahoo News Singapore.

Struggles at the Tokyo Olympics, dealing with father's death

Being in the public eye since winning Singapore's first and only Olympic gold medal in 2016, Schooling's struggles were out in the open for all to see at the Tokyo Summer Games in July last year.

Many shared his acute disappointment when he could not retain that men's 100m butterfly gold, won so monumentally against his idol Michael Phelps in Rio de Janeiro. Some were also stunned by his sub-standard race timing - a 53.12sec effort at the Tokyo Aquatic Centre that was nearly three seconds slower than his gold-winning time of 50.39sec.

It was a precipitous loss of form that saw Schooling crash out in the heats, unable to even compete in the final. Amid his crushing disappointment, there was enough support among his family, his coaching team and his sizeable fan base on social media, and that motivated him enough to declare he would bounce back from the setback.

Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling. (PHOTO: Nick Tan/Yahoo News Singapore)
Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling. (PHOTO: Nick Tan/Yahoo News Singapore)

Then came an even bigger blow in November.

His dad Colin, a pivotal figure who - together with May - had steadfastly supported their only son on his swimming dreams since he was young, died at age 73 after battling with liver cancer for a few months.

It becomes clear now that Colin's illness had been weighing on Joseph during the Tokyo Games, and while he has insisted before that his ailing dad's condition had no bearing on his performance, he revealed during this interview that he had sought the advice of a psychologist to deal with whatever bad news that may hit him.

"Even before the Olympics, my psychologist and I had worked on an exercise on how to deal with the death of a loved one. But separately, I worked with her on preparing for scenarios that may happen at the Games," he said.

"This sounds very morbid, but at that level of competition, you need to prepare for everything. What if I woke up on the day of my 100m fly, and my dad passed? Am I going to give up years of work? So we went through the thought processes to deal with such a scenario.

"But I'll admit, it was one of the hardest chats I've ever had with a professional."

Challenges in balancing training and NS duties

Five months on, Schooling is able to smile fondly in remembering the "Colin-isms" of his outspoken dad, and says he treasures all the memories of the times he spent golfing, travelling and chatting with him.

But even as he begins on the road to regaining his swimming form amid dealing with the pain of his father's death, he has had to take on a new chapter in his life: national service (NS). He was enlisted for NS in January, after being granted deferment since 2014 to train for the 2016 and 2021 Olympics.

While he was cheerful in relating that he has had a great NS experience so far - appreciating the regimented lifestyle and getting along well with everyone in his unit - he was more circumspect when talking about balancing his NS commitments with the high level of training required to win medals at major Games.

He is grateful that his Navy unit is willing to work with him around his training schedules, but even so, balancing these two major commitments is no easy task.

"It is a tight one. I think if you have the right discipline. the right goals and the right attitude, it is doable," he said.

"But at the same time, I want to make it abundantly clear that it is still challenging nonetheless. I have to train in the morning, I have to train in the afternoon, and we have to fit everything my unit requires of me in between. It is tough, I don't have time to do anything else except army stuff and swimming.

"I don't know if someone at the start of his swim career would be willing to fit in this kind of schedule. But I'm already at the tail end of my career, so this is something I'm happy to work around."

Joseph Schooling with his parents Colin and May upon returning to Singapore after winning the Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
Joseph Schooling with his parents Colin and May upon returning to Singapore after winning the Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. (PHOTO: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

Schooling admitted that he came close to quitting for good just before February's Singapore National Age-Group (SNAG) Major Games Qualifier event, but after reassessing his plans and goals, he decided to press on.

His perseverance was duly rewarded at the SNAG event - his first competitive swim meet after the Tokyo Olympics. 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 this month's SEA Games in Hanoi as well as the recently-postponed Hangzhou Asian Games.

The results were a massive confidence boost, which Schooling attributes to "clear and concise goals, discipline and time management". He also credits national head coach Gary Tan and his assistants Gustavo Schirru and Alex Mordvincev for pushing him daily to achieve faster times.

"I really didn't want to swim at the SNAGs, but now I'm happy that I did, because it was a hurdle that I have to get over. I had to be able to qualify for the SEA Games and Asian Games, before everything got better in my mind," he said.

Energised by recent improvements in the pool

It was clear during the interview that Schooling seems energised at seeing his packed schedule pay off with the encouraging SNAG results. There was a sparkle in his eyes as he spoke about how the "fun starts happening" when he puts in maximum effort during training.

That famous competitive fire remains, as he is adamant that the goal has always been to win. At the Hanoi SEA Games, he is aiming for four golds from the four events he is taking part in.

Yet throughout the interview, he gave strong hints that he is ready to move on from his extraordinary swim career, at one point saying that he will be turning 27 this year, and there are a lot of things outside the pool that he would want to do after he is done swimming.

Schooling even gave a clear pathway forward: While he will definitely take part in the SEA Games and the postponed Asian Games, he is opting out of June's World Championships and July's Commonwealth Games, in order to maximise the effectiveness of his training cycles.

After the Asian Games, however, it is time to take stock of his performances - as well as the training regimen needed to reach the lofty Olympic standards - before he aims for the Paris Summer Games in 2024.

"Right now, the question is, 'Okay, do I still want to do Paris? Or do I stop and reassess where I want to go after the Asian Games?'," he said.

Joseph Schooling celebrates winning a race at the SEA Games.
Joseph Schooling celebrates winning a race at the SEA Games. (PHOTO: Singapore SEA Games Organising Committee / Action Images via Reuters)

"Also, how do I balance what I need to do NS-wise and getting the training I need? Because if this schedule persists, I don't think I can make it to 2024 in Paris."

Another factor - his mother May, who was been "holding the fort" with his swim school as he serves his NS. Being the only son, he feels it is his responsibility to spend more time taking care of his mother, following his father's death.

And after the painful journey through his dark period, Schooling believes he has emerged with an even better appreciation of the things he has treasured throughout his life - his family members, his passion for swimming and his desire to be the best he can be.

"There's a certain point in your life where you have to take over everything, and I want to be prepared to take care of other people in my life, not just me," he said.

"I feel a lot less stress nowadays. It's like, whatever I do next in my swim career, it's definitely not for outside reasons and pressures. The key now is to enjoy what I am working for.

"I've always enjoyed representing Singapore at the SEA Games, and this SEA Games being possibly my last will make it even more special. I won't take anything for granted, and I'm going to appreciate whatever is going to happen."

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