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Schooling's first coach: 'It was an emotional moment'

'Uncle Vincent' postpones morning class to watch 'once-in-a-lifetime' moment

FIRST COACH: Vincent Poon (above) with a photo taken with Joseph Schooling and his parents Colin and May a few years ago.

For nearly 50 years, swimming instructor Vincent Poon hardly ever missed teaching a Saturday class.

But yesterday, Poon, 69, made an exception to postpone his morning session to watch one of his former students on TV.

About 17 years ago, there was a precocious four-year-old boy who took lessons with Poon at Tanah Merah Country Club.

From a young age, that child loved the water and always puts in his best in competitions.

The "nice boy" that Poon remembers fondly was Joseph Schooling, now 21, who made Singapore proud and Olympic history with a record of 50.39 seconds in the 100m butterfly final yesterday.

Poon, who watched his former student's stellar performance live on television at home yesterday, told The New Paper on Sunday: "It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so I wanted to catch it live.

"It was a truly emotional moment for me. I almost couldn't believe it actually happened."

This is the first time Poon has watched his former student in Rio, Brazil, live on TV.

Before that, he had been following Schooling's exploits in Rio closely on the news. He also occasionally keeps newspaper clippings on his protege.

The swimming coach, who has been in the profession since 1967, estimates that he has taught over a thousand kids over the years.

Known as Uncle Vincent to Schooling, the friendly coach, who has no children of his own, always tries to make swimming interesting for his young students.

And perhaps this was how the young Olympian got hooked to the sport.

In a previous interview, Schooling would recount how Poon would tell him that a shark was chasing him in the pool and urge him to swim faster.

Poon said with a hearty laugh: "You have to make it fun, so that kids would want to keep coming back for classes."

POTENTIAL

Schooling started training with Poon when he was four. From the time he was six to 12, he had swimming lessons twice a week.

Even at a young age, Schooling's potential was undeniable and Poon recognised it.

During training sessions, Poon would give the other kids a 10-second headstart to push Schooling harder.

"He wouldn't cry if he lost, but just tries harder," he recalled.

Poon also encouraged Schooling's dad, Colin, to consider sending his son abroad to train professionally.

Schooling went to the United States to study and train at swimming powerhouse Bolles School in 2009, at the age of 14.

Poon thinks that the decision was crucial to Schooling's swimming career.

He said: "He would be able to fully concentrate on his swimming without worrying too much about studies and tests.

"The overseas instructors have more advanced (training) methods and he gets to compete with world-class swimmers.

"You can only become the best, when you compete with the best."

Poon, who currently teaches between 15 to 20 students from age three to 10, says that his students and their parents know about his most outstanding student and are huge fans.

Despite Schooling's achievements, he thinks that most Singaporean parents are too "kiasu" to allow their children to focus solely on swimming as Schooling did.

Nonetheless Poon believes that Schooling's win will inspire young swimmers here.

He said: "Everyone is very proud of him.

"His win is a birthday gift for the people of Singapore."

Joe's perfect race

Schooling sets biggest winning margin 
in 100m fly since its 1968 introduction

FABULOUS FINISH: Schooling (centre) touching the wall first in 50.39 seconds, 0.75s ahead of Chad le Clos (right), Michael Phelps and Laszlo Cseh (both not in photo).
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The story of Schooling

David Lee charts the rise and rise of Singapore’s first Olympic gold medallist

History is made when Schooling touches the wall first in a new Olympic record of 50.39 in the 100m butterfly final to win Singapore’s first ever Olympic gold, beating Phelps, le Clos and Cseh into a dead-heat silver by 0.75 seconds.
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Let Schooling continue chasing his rainbow

Olympic champ has already inspired Singaporeans, and is capable of achieving even more

TAKING THE PLUNGE: Singaporeans are hoping that Joseph Schooling's historic Olympic 100m butterfly victory is the start of a long, golden trail.

History-making swimmer Joseph Schooling's achievements are as follows:

- 18 medals at the South-east Asia Games, 16 of them gold;

- A gold, a silver and a bronze at the Asian Games, with an Asian record to boot;

- A first-ever swimming medal, a silver, at the Commonwealth Games;

- A historic medal, a bronze, at the Fina World Championships;

- An unprecedented gold medal at the Olympics, won in a new Games record time.

With these achievements, he will be a shoo-in for Singapore's sporting Hall of Fame, and crowned Singapore's greatest-ever sportsman.

But, at 21, this is just the beginning and he deserves all the help he can get.

He is in good hands at the University of Texas, where his coach Eddie Reese has produced Olympic champions before Schooling, such as Aaron Peirsol and Brendan Hansen.

The legendary coach, who has 49 years of coaching experience in the US, told The New Paper two years ago that the Singaporean is "way more talented" than anyone else he has ever seen.

He had also said that his protege has it within him to do well in the 100m and 200m freestyle, as well as the 200m individual medley.

Already, Schooling owns the second-fastest time in Asia this year in the 100m free, behind just Asian champion Ning Zetao, when he clocked 48.27 in the heats in Rio.

WORLD RECORD NEXT

Of course, there's Michael Phelps' 100m fly world record of 49.82 to chase down as well, and he is in no better hands than Reese's to achieve that.

Former Olympian and respected local coach David Lim said: "Joe has got two more years at the University of Texas with Eddie Reese.

"He has groomed Olympic champions like Ian Crocker and Aaron Peirsol, so he is the expert and the coach who can take Joe to the next level."

Of course, there is the sensitive issue of National Service to consider, and Schooling's deferment, granted by Mindef in 2013, will end this month.

The Ministry has always maintained its stance for compulsory conscription for Singapore's defence needs, while allowing leeway for "world-class" individuals, as it did with Schooling and his teammate Quah Zheng Wen.

Therefore it was encouraging to note in a Straits Times report, where Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin says talks with the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) about Schooling's long-term national service (NS) deferment will continue to take place.

Speaking to the media in Rio, he said: "It's important because for some sports, you begin to peak and these are important years.

"We've made the exception for Joseph and (Singapore swimmer Quah) Zheng Wen and made some adjustments, and this is something we will continue to go on discussing as more of our athletes begin to push the boundaries on the world stage."

While he acknowledged that Schooling's gold-medal feat demonstrated the young swimmer's potential, Mr Tan added: "I guess the key is how do you identify the potentials and make those exemptions?

"We will continue to discuss closely with Mindef and see how that space evolves. I wouldn't say that as a result of this, there's going to be a change, neither would I say that things will remain static.

"We do want our sportsmen to develop, but we do also recognise that there are responsibilities we need to balance as well, so let's see how that space evolves."

Studies, painstakingly compiled by Schooling's parents Colin and May, have shown though the dip in performance that a prolonged absence - even in the case of a three-month basic training - will bring in elite swimming.

The Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) is fully prepared to support Schooling, if he decides to apply for another deferment, a key endorsement in the entire process.

SSA secretary-general and former Olympian Oon Jin Teik said: "I think it's not just me hoping that Joseph will get another deferment, I think the whole of Singapore will ask for him to defer at the rate he's going."

Exemption from NS is an option floated about in the wake of Schooling's historic Olympic triumph.

In an online straw poll on 701 people by former journalist and media critic Cherian George on his website Air-Conditioned Nation, some 467 people - or 67 per cent of respondents - felt the swimmer should be exempted from NS, while 22 per cent felt he must come back to serve, but only when he's done with swimming.

George conceded that the survey was an "unscientific" one though, likely skewed in the euphoria of a historic Olympic victory.

But, from conversations with Schooling senior over the years, exemption has never been a consideration; Singaporean sons must serve, he had said.

At just 21, Schooling is already an eloquent and well-mannered ambassador of Singapore in the sporting arena, as one could tell from his press conference after winning the 100m fly.

And like our footballers did from the '70s to early '90s - he brought a nation to a standstill yesterday, as they cheered and willed him on in his pet event.

One of my schoolmates, who does not usually follow sports other than tennis, has been reminding us in our Whatsapp group chat to catch Schooling in action the past few days.

A Singaporean wrote on Facebook that his daughter was inspired to go swimming yesterday because of "Schooling kor kor".

Schooling, in his personal triumph, has inspired a nation, also sending a statement to talented young Singaporeans that it is worthwhile to take a splash in the pool.

The late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew famously said at a 1996 Foreign Correspondents Association dinner in Manila: "The sky has turned brighter...

"There is a glorious rainbow that beckons those with a spirit of adventure... To the young and not-too-old I say: Look at the horizon, find that rainbow, ride it."

Schooling has found his rainbow, and has now inspired his countrymen to find their own.

He must be allowed to keep riding that rainbow.

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