Sports

Schooling's an Extraordinary Joe

It is the biggest - and certainly rarest - compliment any Singapore athlete can get.

To say that a Singaporean is the biggest talent among a pool of world-class American swimmers is something out of the ordinary.

But he is no ordinary Joe.

He is Joseph Isaac Schooling, swimmer extraordinaire, sportsman supreme.

Eddie Reese, one of America's more recognised swimming coaches with close to 50 years of teaching and instructing, says of Joseph:

"As far as talent goes, he's way more talented than anybody I've seen in my programme."

And this 73-year-old master tactician, who had moulded the likes of Americans Aaron Peirsol and Ian Crocker, has taken upon himself the task of working with Schooling to turn the 19-year-old into an Olympic medallist in 2016 in Rio.

It is surely a long haul, an unprecedented move.

But it is no pipe-dream.

For there are valid reasons for optimism.

Like, the experienced coach at Texas University who was also the men's head coach of the United States team for the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, being highly knowledgeable with a keen eye for nurturing talent.

Like, the swimmer being a proven natural talent, "the closest human to a dolphin under water", says Reese.

No doubt, the road to Rio will have its fair share of under-currents and choppy waters.

One slip, an unforeseen mistake in the next 18 months to the Summer Games in Brazil could dash the Olympic dream.

But with the Government behind him (his National Service has been deferred to after the Games), parents Colin and May, as always, backing him, and the coaching machinery seemingly working efficiently, Joseph is huffing and puffing towards a swimming first.

I have known the Schoolings for more than a dozen years, just after Joseph made his first dip at the Tanah Merah Country Club (TMCC) pool.

His baptism into swimming had no hitch, said his first coach Vincent Poon, a man he still refers to as "Uncle", who was meticulous in grooming the then four-year-old.

Also in Joseph's favour is that dad Colin and mum May know what sport is all about.

Colin had been been a top national softballer and a competent golfer, whose family tree has produced some top athletes, among them high jumper and uncle Lloyd Valberg who competed in the 1948 Olympics.

May, a chartered accountant by training, also played softball at national level and was Perak State's tennis star, and now also a leading sports administrator.

In one of my visits to the Schooings' office (he is a trader dealing in import/export) at Parkway Parade, I observed how obsessed the parents were in making Joseph a swimming champion.

Against a backdrop of sports memorabilia and golfers' portraits adorning the office walls, Colin pored through spread sheets and statistics to find out how Joseph fared among his global age-group rivals.

Mum analysed how her only son would grow, studying about bone mass growth (and discovered that Joseph would grow to be a six-footer) and the right diet for sportsmen.

They had good bonding and communication with Joseph, whether when in school at Anglo-Chinese Junior and ACS (Independent) or at Bolles in Florida.

And in the few times I had met Joseph, I have known him to be a respectful, well-behaved and unassuming kid who enjoys his sport.

Powerful swimmer aside, Joseph, who played football, badminton and tennis at void decks, is also a good golfer who plays off a nine-handicap and can whack a 230-metre drive.

So the subject matter here is a god-given sports talent, a rare commodity in Singapore.

I can think of only two other swimmers as the closest thing to Joseph.

When I watched our first sprinter Neo Chwee Kok swim in the Sixties, I realised why they called him the "Flying Fish".

Relatively short (at about 1.7m) for a sprinter, the stocky Neo had powerful arms that propelled him to the fore.

When I followed Ang Peng Siong to many Games in the '80s, I was amazed at his muscular build, until he stood alongside Americans Matt Biondi and Tom Jaeger at the 1988 Olympics.

At 1.85m, he was dwarfed by the two taller rivals, but they marvelled at Ang's swift rotating arms that saw him cut easily through water.

Joseph is the correct combination of Ang and Neo, a near-perfect "flyer" who carries a nation's hopes on his broad shoulders.

Fifteen years ago, when "Uncle" Poon tossed Joseph into the TMCC pool, he wanted to see if the child prodigy would panic.

On that, Joseph told me in a previous interview: "I didn't panic, I came out of the water smiling."

Since then, he has come out of the water smiling on so many occasions, unsurprisingly.

Give us that same smile at Rio 2016, Joe.

The writer is consulting editor of The New Paper.