Schooling eyes the gold
Schooling eyes history as he clashes with his idol Phelps
REPORTING FROM RIO
He flailed his extraordinarily long arms across his torso like whips, sending lightning cracks reverberating around the arena and leaving those watching wincing, wondering how joints are not dislodged and ribs not cracked.
It has been Michael Phelps' signature all his swimming life, a way of warming particular muscles and by now an unmistakable warning to his rivals that THE MAN is in HIS HOUSE.
On Thursday afternoon at the Olympic Aquatics Arena here in Rio, he went through his usual routine in Heat 6 of the men's 100m butterfly, crouched in Lane 4.
I wondered if Joseph Schooling, hearing it ring loudest in his ears in Lane 5, would be intimidated.
The answer came 51.41 seconds later.
The Singaporean beat Phelps and led 16 of the world's best sprint butterfliers into the semi-finals.
At 9.12am today (Singapore time), Schooling will attempt to end his idol's unbeaten run at the 2016 Olympics. The world will be watching, an island nation will be attacked by nerves and gripped with excitement, as Singaporeans come together to will one of their own into the history books, and into global headlines, in the 100m butterfly final.
Only sport can do this and we all will forever be grateful to the Schoolings - dad, mum and their fearless son - for helping put together this magic show.
For much of his young life, the 21-year-old has said his goal was to own Olympic gold. Maybe he was ridiculed early on because Singapore has never feted a swimming medallist at the Games, but Schooling has already been vindicated here, although he was hardly in the mood to play it safe 24 hours before the final.
"I'm here to win gold. I'm not talking about a medal. I want to win," he said, after a record-breaking swim in the semi-finals of the event yesterday morning (Singapore time).
"It's time Singaporeans go for gold and not simply settle for a medal at events like the Olympics. A medal is not what I'm going for. I'm going for gold."
Not boastful or arrogant, but said matter-of-factly, after he churned up the pool to clock the fastest time of 50.83 in the semi-finals, beating his previous national record of 50.96 and setting a fresh Asian benchmark in the event.
China's 17-year-old prodigy Li Zhuhao will be alongside Schooling in the final in Lane 3. Nemesis Chad le Clos of South Africa was the second fastest qualifier and will be in Lane 5. Laszlo Cseh, the always dangerous Hungarian, will start in Lane 6.
They are all talented and capable.
But Phelps, who will stand in Lane 2, is the favourite. Singaporeans cannot quibble because the American was born for this.
The 31-year-old is the most talented Olympic miner and owns a record 22 gold medals.
Phelps has won four in Rio already, he is on form and in the mood with two events to go.
Crucially, he is enjoying himself, he says. Schooling knows this.
He will know that Phelps' only intention was to make the final yesterday morning, after his effort to win gold in the men's 200m individual medley, minutes before he went out in the first semi-final of the men's 100m butterfly.
The Singapore swimmer will know that his rival was slowest off the blocks and didn't pay too much attention at the 50m turn.
Phelps' turn is the best in the history of swimming and, well-rested, he will be all set to unleash it.
Schooling says he will be ready.
"All that I've done so far means nothing," he reasoned, minutes after the semi-finals.
"What matters is what I do in the final and that's what I'm focused on."
Phelps is the world-record holder with a time of 49.82 set in 2009.
Maybe that mark is not in danger, but the fastest man in the event this year and the fastest man in the history of the 100m butterfly, have been involved in some exchanges over the course of the last few days.
After their heat, Phelps recounted how Schooling had told him before the opening act that he would follow in his wake and be pulled along.
"I just told him, 'No man, I'll be following you and let you pull me along'," said the American.
A little bit of playfulness, and perhaps some mental jousting, before the serious business.
He won't be able to see Phelps in the final.
But he will hear that vicious and loud crack from Lane 2 and know THE MAN is about.
The world is about to find out if Schooling will crash into Phelps' HOUSE.
"Congratulations to Joseph Schooling, who has progressed to the 100m butterfly final with the best overall time of 50.83sec, which is a new Asian record!
The races were very exciting and both Joseph and (Quah) Zheng Wen did Singapore proud. We often underestimate the years of hard work and preparations because a race like the 100m fly concludes in just under a minute, barely a blink of an eye.
I look forward to seeing Joseph compete against the best in the world tomorrow. Together with Singaporeans back home, I wish him all the best!
My strongest encouragement to Zheng Wen too, for having progressed so far. He swam his heart out for Singapore and we are proud of him."
— President Tony Tan Keng Yam, in Rio to watch Team Singapore athletes in action
"The entire road to Rio has been a history-making, record-breaking race from start to finish. The outstanding performances of both Joseph (Schooling) and (Quah) Zheng Wen have shown us that we are punching above our weight as a nation, and are on track to reach our vision of becoming a leading aquatics nation. We’re anticipating a race that will truly stop the nation and we hope, wherever you are, you’ll be tuning in to see Schooling strive for medal glory."
— Singapore Swimming Association secretary-general Oon Jin Teik
“I was quite happily surprised with his performance in the semi-finals. He produced a phenomenal swim; it was the fastest 100m fly swim this year! I have friends, who know a lot about swimming, and they watched Joseph swim today and they told me that he still had a lot to spare. He might even break the Olympic record in the final tomorrow!”
— Colin Schooling, Joseph’s father
BY THE NUMBERS
Joseph Schooling's grand uncle Lloyd Valberg was Singapore's first Olympian, representing the country in the high jump event in the 1948 Games, which was held in London.