Olympic golden boy is a people's hero
Hundreds fill up Changi Airport Terminal 3 to wait for the arrival of Olympic gold-medalist Joseph Schooling
Dec 24, 2012. 1.15pm. More than 800 fans at Changi Airport's Terminal 2 chanted "Ole... ole, ole, ole" to celebrate the Lions' return from their triumphant Suzuki Cup campaign.
May 31, 2010. 9.30pm. About 200 supporters greeted Feng Tianwei, Wang Yuegu, Li Jiawei, Sun Beibei and Yu Mengyu at Terminal 1 after the national female paddlers beat China to bring home the 2010 World Team Table Tennis Championships title.
But yesterday was something else.
The homecoming for Joseph Schooling was definitely worth its weight (and wait) in his historic Olympic gold, as a crowd of about 800 sacrificed sleep, skipped a bit of school and work, to welcome home Singapore's first Olympic champion.
On board SQ67 from Sao Paulo, the 21-year-old, who beat joint-silver medallists Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh to win the 100m butterfly final in a new Olympic record of 50.39 seconds on Saturday morning (Singapore time), was due to touch down at Changi Airport Terminal 3 at 5.30am, but the first supporters were there at 10 o'clock the night before.
By the time he appeared at 6.20am, cleaners, aunties, ministers, pilots, schoolchildren, sports officials, tourists and a horde of local and international media had already congregated at the exit nearest Belt 42 to await his arrival.
But it was family first as Schooling and his mother made a beeline for his teary-eyed father, Mr Colin Schooling, before engaging in a warm family embrace.
A soundbite, a photo, a wefie, an autograph. Everybody wanted a piece of the golden boy as they shouted "Joseph! Joseph!"
'I LOVE YOU GUYS'
Addressing the swelling crowd, Schooling sent them into a further tizzy when he said: "Thank you guys for coming. This is not for me, it is for all of you. I love you guys."
Ever the gentleman, he made time for the long line of fans that snaked out of the terminal and into the coach bays. This was a 100m the butterfly specialist couldn't complete in 50.39 seconds.
In succeeding where the likes of tennis' Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, cycling's Vincenzo Nibali, woman football goalkeeper Hope Solo and le Clos have failed at these Games, Schooling's Olympic gold has put Singapore on the world sporting map.
Millions in Singapore and around the world must have watched that epic race in which he obliterated the world's best swimmers.
One of them was 18-year-old Hannah Alkaff. She was with her mother and aunt.
Miss Alkaff reaffirmed Schooling's all-round nice-guy personality by revealing how he recognised and acknowledged her by name after attending his various meet-and-greets.
The Republic Polytechnic student said: "When he saw me in the crowd yesterday, he said, 'Hey Hannah, how are you doing?'
"I think he realised that I was struggling - because everyone was pushing - so he just took my phone and took a wefie with us.
"Last Saturday, my family and our helper were glued to the TV. Of course, my mum and I were screaming and jumping.
"I was crying and shaking the moment I realised he touched the wall first."
The history-maker was whisked to Tanah Merah Country Club's Garden Terrace for some chye tow kway (fried carrot cake) - "the darker the better" - chwee kueh (steamed rice cake) and grass jelly with his parents and the family of his best pal, fellow national swimmer Teo Zhen Ren, at 7.30am.
As he made his exit, the fans screamed: "Thank you, Schoolings!"
The wider impact of his achievement could well be felt for a long, long time yet. Instead of obstacles, Singaporeans now see opportunities.
Like wide-eyed, 12-year-old Aidan Koh, a breaststroke swimmer from Anglo-Chinese School (Junior), where Schooling himself studied. More than 20 kids, mostly from the swim team, were given permission to report to school later yesterday so that they could welcome Schooling home.
Wearing a shirt signed by his idol, Aidan said: "I watched Joseph win Olympic gold with my family and I was so excited, I shouted in front of the TV at that amazing moment.
"It was really inspiring. I hope to represent the country one day."
Apprehensive parents may now convert, after witnessing Schoolings' labour of love.
His parents painstakingly documented their son's every race from 2000 to 2009, took technical courses in the sport, built an extensive swim library at home, sent their 13-year-old overseas to train with Sergio Lopez at Bolles, in Florida, and more than $1 million to nurture and support their son's dream.
Mr Schooling told The New Paper yesterday: "First, we taught him to be an officer and gentleman before being a swimmer.
"He has a God-given talent, we just did all we could to help him fulfil it."
The Ministry of Defence also played a key role in granting Schooling deferment from national service in 2013, paving the way for him to train full-time for his Rio tilt.
Just as fast as the motion was moved to make Schooling the first athlete to be honoured in Parliament later in the afternoon, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen was also quick to announce a statement that should give hope and affirmation to male athletes across the country aspiring to be world-beaters.
The Armed Forces Council has approved Schooling's appeal for NS deferment to be further extended and for his enlistment to be after Tokyo 2020.
Dr Ng said: "Joseph can now set his sights on 2020 to defend his Olympic title and win more national glory for Singapore. Let us all wish him many more achievements and success!"
The fan frenzy continued outside Parliament House.
Administrative manager Stephanie See Toh, who had been waiting for Schooling since 8.30am, said: "I bought flowers and thought I could pass it to him in the car as they were leaving Parliament House, and perhaps get a selfie.
"But he got out of the car. I got to hug him and take a picture."
Car salesman Patrick Tan, who was also waiting for Schooling's appearance, said: "I was very touched because I could tell he was tired but he bothered to come out of the car.
"I hugged him and told his parents that Joseph is a very good ambassador for Singapore."
Last evening, the family had dinner at Roland Restaurant in Marine Parade, before a knackered Schooling finally got a good night's rest.
Riding the wave of optimism, Singapore sports might receive a fresh boost from sponsors.
A group of POSB Bank employees was seen at the airport to welcome Schooling.
On the roads, ComfortDelGro offered $10 discounts to passengers on their way to Changi Airport between 3am and 5am yesterday.
Many other companies also joined in the congratulations, including Singapore Press Holdings.
Also present at the airport was former Nominated Member of Parliament Nicholas Fang, who had previously helmed the fencing and modern pentathlon national sports associations.
The 2015 SEA Games chef-de-mission noted the incredible unifying power of sports and said that Singapore's first Olympic gold medal must not be our last.
"I believe this is a watershed moment and hopefully sees the shattering of that mental barrier that Singaporean athletes can't beat the best in the world," he added.
"More significantly, I hope it will encourage other athletes and their families to dream big and aim high.
"Ideally, this latest result will spur corporate partners to come forward early in an athlete's sporting journey to support them with financial and other resources instead of waiting for the result to come before jumping on the bandwagon."
- Additional reporting by Catherine Robert and Lim Say Heng
PHOTO: MISS HANNAH ALKAFF