Joseph Schooling on Defending His Olympic Gold and Life After Swimming
Depending on how you look at it, Joseph Schooling is either at the tail end of his career or just getting started. Singapore’s first and only Olympic gold medallist might be on his last lap as a competitive swimmer. The forthcoming Tokyo Olympics will likely be his swansong after almost two decades in the pool.
Yet, his future outside of the pool has him on the starting blocks, eager to take the plunge.
“The first thing I think about is: glass half full or glass half empty,” says Schooling, who turns 26 this month. “I like the second one better. It’s like a spring, diving off a block into what’s next.”
Regardless of what the reigning 100-metre butterfly Olympic champion and two-time Asian Games winner decides, Schooling already has written himself into the annals of Singapore’s history as one of its most successful athletes. Medals aside, Schooling has amassed more than $1 million under the Singapore National Olympic Council’s Multi-million Dollar Award Programme, which hands out cash awards for winning medals at major sporting competitions.
Listen to Joseph Schooling in conversation with Tatler’s Marc Lim here:
Outside of the pool, his commercial deals with international brands have reportedly also earned him a seven-figure sum. Schooling is an ambassador for Toyota, which sees him drive around in a spanking new Supra; Hugo Boss, which launched a red-carpet event for him with Chris Hemsworth in attendance; and Tag Heuer. He also inked a three-year sponsorship deal with DBS Bank. Only former footballing star Fandi Ahmad comes close to matching the swimmer’s star power.
There has been talk that a job in wealth management is already on the table whenever Schooling, an economics major from the University of Texas at Austin, is ready to take it. He has also launched his own swim school, Swim Schooling, and a fitness app, Schooling Sport, which provides exercise and training plans with interactive audio coaching.
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Schooling’s hunger to succeed was evident even at the age of six, when he made a commitment to himself to compete at the Olympics, after hearing stories about his granduncle Lloyd Valberg, a high jumper, who became Singapore’s first ever Olympian at the 1948 Games. This innate determination has proven to be a key factor in his success. He also notes his discipline to follow a schedule and ability to find inner peace and motivation are traits that will also serve him well in business.
“You can take people out of any field and put them anywhere,” he says. “The crazy thing is if you speak to high-performing people, you’re going to hear them talk about different things in their fields, but the mindset is all the same, and that just says it all.”
Had the Tokyo Olympics been held in 2020 as planned, he is the first to admit that he would not have been ready to defend his title. A subpar performance at the 2019 SEA Games, concerns over his weight, and perhaps a wrong decision to return to Singapore for his Olympic preparation meant he would have headed to Tokyo a shadow of his former self.
Athletes are hardwired to want to be able to control the situation, and that’s impossible, because in life you can’t really control anything.
But the postponement of the Games to July this year bought Schooling one more year to train. Since moving back to the US to train under his former coach, Sergio Lopez, he has found his groove.
“I just think I’ve been too comfortable in Singapore,” he says. “I love being home, but I think I’m just so used to being in the US that whenever I’m stateside, I’m subconsciously already locked into what I need to do.”
In what could be a preview to the Olympic final, Schooling came in second, with a time of 52.93 seconds, in the 100 m fly at the ISCA International Senior Cup in March, sandwiched between fellow Olympic hopefuls Caeleb Dressel (51.69) and Jack Conger (53.05).
While the timing is still a long way from his personal best and Olympic-winning effort of 50.39 seconds, the race against Dressel, the 100 m butterfly world record holder (49.50), was an important step.
“Caeleb’s the guy to be beat right now,” says Schooling. “He’s the man everyone is chasing, so just being in the same heat, you need to be comfortable racing him.”
But to stand a chance of striking gold again, he will need to cut his time down below 50 seconds. Apart from Americans Dressel and Conger, Hungary’s Kristof Milak, who clocked a personal best of 50.47 seconds in March, and 2016 Olympic silver medallist Chad le Clos of South Africa will be Schooling’s biggest rivals for a medal.
In fact, he views the 2021 field as tighter than the 2016 line-up, which featured American swimming legend and Schooling’s childhood idol Michael Phelps. Phelps,Le Clos and Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh all finished an unprecedented joint-second in 51.14 seconds.
“I think it’s going to be a very different race,” says Schooling. “At the top, the discrepancy is going to be a little more than what it was in Rio. Whatever it is, it’sgoing to be one heck of a ride.”
It is a ride that Singaporeans will follow closely. Thousands lined the streets for Schooling’s victory parade in 2016. And this connection with his fans iswhat he cherishes most.
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“In the beginning I didn’t really understand what that meant,” says Schooling, whose chance meeting as a 13-year-old with Phelps, his idol, was a pivotal point in his Olympic journey. “I thought, ‘Okay, cool, you see this person so happy for taking a picture, for example, or talking to them for 30 seconds, and you think, ‘What’s the big deal?’ But down the line, the more you see, the more you understand, and once you start understanding the impact of it, that’s when the magic starts.”
“The exciting part for me is if I can recreate the feeling that I felt when I spoke to Michael Phelps for the first time. That’s crazy and that shouldn’t be real. How can you bring that person so much happiness with something so small?”
Whatever path he chooses after Tokyo will have a big impact on his life. Regardless, one thing he hopes will remain is to continue impacting the lives of others.
The June 2021 issue of Tatler Singapore starring Joseph Schooling is now on newsstand and Magzter.
- Photography Greg Kahn