Sports

Schooling gunning for at least eight goals at next SEA Games

He was the most successful swimmer at the South-east Asia (SEA) Games in Myanmar last year with six gold medals.

But he wants more.

Don't be surprised if Singapore's swim king Joseph Schooling breaks that mark when the Republic hosts the SEA Games next June.

The 19-year-old University of Texas at Austin freshman is gunning for at least eight titles at the OCBC Aquatic Centre, but he has not decided how many events he will enter.

No male Singaporean swimmer has won more than six golds in a single edition of the SEA Games.

When asked his target for next year's SEA Games, the Asian Games 100m fly gold medallist told The New Paper: "Eight, maybe more? I am not sure yet, it depends on what I want to swim."

In Myanmar, Schooling won the 100m and 200m butterfly, 200m individual medley, as well as the 4x100m and 4x200m free relays.

The Singapore quartet in the 4x100m medley relay was bumped up from second place after Indonesia were stripped of their title, as one of their swimmers, Indra Gunawan, was found guilty of doping.

At September's Asiad in Incheon, Schooling also took silver in the 50m fly and bronze in the 200m fly, while clocking 2min 00.11sec in the 200 IM.

The 50m fly was not offered in the SEA Games last year, but Schooling was the last winner in the event, in Palembang in 2011, with a Games-record time of 24.06.

He clocked 23.70 in South Korea this year.

While the 2012 Olympian is known for his fly and IM events, he could also gun for the freestyle, and even backstroke, titles at the upcoming SEA Games.

Schooling holds the national 100m and 200m free records - 50.05 and 1:49.47 respectively - and will be a shoo-in for the three relay teams.

He has already made the SEA Games "A" qualifying marks for all three fly events and the 200m IM, as the Asian Games is used by the Singapore Swimming Association as one of the qualifying meets.

SCARY

His gold medal-winning 100m fly time at the Asiad - 51.69 - places him ninth-fastest in the world this year.

The good - or scary, for his opponents - thing is that he is getting even better in Texas.

Training under renowned coach Eddie Reese - a two-time US Olympic team coach and the man behind the successful Texas programme for more than 30 years, the Singaporean is getting better by the day.

Schooling said: "The weight programme is the biggest difference between high school and college. At Bolles, we didn't do much, if any, weights.

"I feel a lot stronger than before and fitter."

There is also a concerted effort to improve his IM timing.

Reese told The New Paper in an interview that he wants to turn Schooling into a "world-class" swimmer in the event.

Schooling said: "I've kind of backed off (training for) the fly and started on working different strokes, especially my backstroke.

"Eddie (Reese) and I are confident that I can excel in my IM the same way I will for my other events."

Beyond June's SEA Games, the World Championships in Russia in late July will be a good gauge of his progress ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

On his targets in Kazan, Schooling said: "Right now, I have my own goals and I know what I need to be at before going to Rio.

"Being in the final (in Russia) is definitely part of my goal, but that's all I'm going to say for now. I'm going to take one meet at a time."

"I believe i’m still a 200m swimmer. the 100m will always be there, but i really want to get my 200m back into the swing of things. i feel confident about my 200m, something that has been lacking the past few times i swam it, and i’m sure i’ll be better than before."

— Joseph Schooling, who won silver and gold in the 100m fly at the Commonwealth and Asian Games respectively. He made the “A” qualifying mark for the 200m event in the 2012 Olympics

SCHOOLING'S PROBABLE SEA GAMES EVENTS: 50m, 100m, 200m fly; 200m IM; 4x100m and 4x200m free; 4x100m medley

POSSIBLE: 100m and 200m free

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.