Singaporean Olympic gold medallist who beat Michael Phelps in the 100m butterfly at Rio 2016 eyes Olympic return
Joseph Schooling has gone down in history as the man who defeated the most decorated Olympic swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, during the 100m butterfly final at Rio 2016.
If he was able to topple Phelps, who was almost untouchable at Rio, sky is now the limit for the 25-year-old Singaporean when he touches down at Tokyo 2020 next year, where he is now aiming to equal if not exceed his Rio success.
Next year, the Games will be devoid of Phelps' presence but Schooling is more than ready to face his new rivals.
Still, that race at Rio will always be marked forever in Schooling's memory, a highlight which may be hard to surpass with Phelps being his childhood idol and meeting him as an eight year old.
"To race next to Michael and to beat him was always a goal that I’ve had," he told Tokyo 2020.
Not only did he beat Phelps at Rio 2016, Schooling also claimed Singapore's first and only gold medal - also breaking a new Olympic record after clocking at 50.39.
Meanwhile Phelps had to settle for a silver medal which he shared second place with two other swimmers: South Africa's Chad le Clos and Hungary's Laszlo Cseh after the three finished at the same time of 51.14.
"Everything happened so fast, and when I touched the wall, I felt huge, huge relief and also ecstasy." Schooling described of his win.
"I remember going through a gamut of emotions when I realised I’ve won the gold medal. That was probably one of the best feelings ever and one that I will cherish forever and will always spur me on and keep me focussed on achieving future higher goals," he said.
2016 Getty Images
The pride of Singapore - the family behind the success
As the first person to win a gold medal for his country, Schooling has gone unto become the Games' unexpected star and the pride of Singapore. With his career winnings to date and multiple brand endorsements, he has become a celebrity in his own right and is now the country's most bankable athlete.
Despite all these achievements, Schooling will not forget his family who has been there for him since day one, when he first began swimming at age 4 and started competing at age 5 up to the point where he became a certified Olympic gold medallist.
"I am very proud of my achievement [at Rio 2016] but not only by myself but what we have managed to achieve together as a family. I would not have been able to achieve this without the strong support of my parents. They believed in me and did all they could to help me achieve my dream and in turn, achieve Singapore’s dream."
"They uprooted their lives and made the difficult but necessary decision to give me the opportunity to work with some of the best coaches who knew how to get the best out of me to achieve my goals. I also received a lot of help from external parties, whether it’s through organisations or scholarships to help fund me through my school and my training."
In a way, Schooling's achievements in sports are hardly a surprise. He grew up in a sporting family and sports had always been encouraged at home. His grand uncle was the first and only athlete to represent Singapore at the London 1948 and both his parents had also competed in international sporting tournaments.
"Sports is in my blood," he proudly said.
His place of solace
Four years after he beat Phelps, Schooling was all set to defend his title at Tokyo 2020 when COVID-19 swept the world and postponed the Games to next year.
Before Singapore closed its borders, Schooling who had been training in the US since December last year, decided to fly back to his native country.
Whilst in Singapore, he wasn't able swim in a pool and had to adjust his training.
"While the pools were shut, training didn’t stop for me. My coaches provided me with a detailed fitness plan to ensure that we continue with our training. Our usual training consists of pool and land sessions so even though we couldn’t get into a pool, it was no excuse to put a pause on our training sessions on land."
Despite this, Schooling wasn't worried about lack of competition practice.
"There are different phases going into being race-ready and obviously, a big part is conditioning. Conditioning, technique work and then you start putting some power and some speed on top of that. we (have) got plenty of time and I’m just taking steps forward each day."
But he did miss being in the pool - which he says is his place of solace.
"I’m in my element, when in my pool, it’s a place where I can fully express myself mentally and physically. It’s basically like my home and not being able to, in the current context , go home, was quite challenging at first."
Now back in the US since October to restart his normal training, the Singapore swimmer sees the positives of the situation.
"Despite the Tokyo Olympics being postponed, I think you can find positives out of every negative. It gives me an extra year to get physically and mentally stronger, working on the things that can get me to where I want to be in 2021."
2016 Getty Images
Technology at his side
Like many world-class athletes who are preparing for the Olympic Games, Schooling has also talked about the importance of technology when it comes to aquatic sports.
"Technology is always getting better and a lot of the time, it helps us do a task at a higher level or at a more efficient speed. Of course, there are traditionalists versus people on the cutting edge when new technology surfaces."
He points out how technology helps him and other athletes become better but also stay objective about their performances.
"I understand for athletes it’s like a push and pull between how you feel about something and what your gut tells you versus what statistics show you on paper."
"Numbers don't lie even though you feel a certain way. At the end of the day one of the biggest things I love about swimming is the clock doesn’t lie, it’s not a subjective sport."
Back in Rio, Schooling worked with Ryan Hodierne, a sports biomechanist who helped the Singaporean athlete with his race plans which was instrumental to his victory.
Now he is looking forward more than ever to how much biomechanics and technology could enhance his performance in future competitions especially at Tokyo 2020.
"The fate of my result does not lie in anyone else’s hands but my own. I’m working with a bio max over here and I just went through a fluid dynamics test so I’m excited to see what those results are like."
"It’s unlike any test that we have ever done before so I’m really excited to see how things turn out and how to get better.
"Being a professional athlete is not only training every day in the pool but it’s also how you deal with the psychological factor, nutritional factor and technique, there are so many things that come into play to complement my training which in turn gives the end result."
It’s being the best version I can be on that day where I need to step up my race.
Schooling's success at Rio is not a one-off victory. At the 2017 FINA World Championships, he won a joint-bronze medal with Great Britain's James Guy, won all events in the 2017 SEA Games and set a new national 100m butterfly record at the 2018 Asian Games.
Regardless of the pressure to repeat his triumph at Rio, Schooling is staying focussed not just on winning but on himself.
"I want to be the best version I can be. Medal wise, of course, everyone who goes to the Olympics, most of them want to win. If not why do we do this every day."
"But if there’s one thing I can be honest with myself, it’s not getting a gold medal. It’s being the best version I can be on that day where I need to step up my race. And the rest, fate will decide, right? All you can do is control the outcome of your own swimming, that’s it."
And for now, what's important to Schooling is to maintain balance.
"It is always a never-ending pursuit of trying to get better. Win or lose, you’re going to give it your best. In the past, I was always focussed on winning, and I still am, I still want to win more than ever. But at the same time, it is also important to find a balance - the push and pull, letting go of what you can and can’t control."
While his victory at Rio still remains his greatest achievement, Schooling would like others to take inspiration from it.
"For me, I hope my win shows and gives everyone the belief that if you love what you do, be passionate about it. If you have that mind-set and that perseverance, nothing or anyone can really stop you."
"There may be obstacles in your way (now more than ever in current circumstances) but there are always ways to work around these situations. The environment or circumstances may have changed but your goal hasn’t changed, so keep working towards it and be creative. Work hard, never give up."