The road ahead for Schooling after Worlds woes
Swim star must learn from lessons this year as he plots a comeback at 2019 Worlds and 2020 Olympics
Three targets, none achieved.
Joseph Schooling failed in his bid to win the men's 50m and 100m butterfly titles, and break the world record in the latter, at the Fina World Championships
While the proverbial bar has been raised for the 22-year-old since he clinched Singapore's first-ever Olympic gold medal in Rio last year, there is no cause for gloom and doom over his showing in Budapest, Hungary.
Despite taking a half-year break post-Olympics where he hardly trained, if at all, he still rewrote his own Asian and national record in the men's 50m fly, where he finished fifth, and was joint-third with Briton James Guy in the 100m fly.
That said, the year 2017 should serve as a good wake-up call for the University of Texas undergraduate in his journey towards the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
He acknowledged as much when he said after finishing joint-third in the 100m fly final: "I got my a** kicked."
The star swimmer must learn from the lessons this year as he trains towards the 2019 Worlds in Gwangju, South Korea, the dress rehearsal for Tokyo 2020.
But, as Singapore Swimming Association technical director Sonya Porter pointed out, Schooling will have a platform to work on, in the form of the bronze medal, after having "inconsistent training" over the entire season.
She said: "These are the things that are going to bring them back stronger than before... where he is here puts him in a good place."
However, there are things that the swimmer will have to negotiate in the coming years before the next Olympics.
Schooling took the long break after Rio to recharge, after achieving his lifelong dream of winning an Olympic gold medal, and returned to the pool with the aim of breaking Phelps' 100m fly world record of 49.82sec, among others.
While he was once the hunted as the Olympic champion, he now has become a hunter again, with Caeleb Dressel emerging as a formidable rival at the Worlds.
The Singaporean acknowledged as much, saying: "Everyone needs someone who will push you to go faster. Phelps had Ian Thorpe and Milorad Cavic.
"I'm not comparing me and Caeleb to them, but it does set us up to have an exciting couple of years leading up to Tokyo."
It is a well-known fact that Schooling hates to lose.
Besides Dressel, the likes of Hungary's Kristof Milak, who was second to Dressel in the final, China's Li Zhuhao, and South Africa's Chad le Clos, will also drive Schooling to work harder and regain his place at the top of the ladder.
Schooling will compete in his final National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) meet before he graduates next year, and his father Colin has indicated that Schooling would like to continue training under Longhorns coach Eddie Reese, who guided him to the Olympic title.
While Colin said there will be contingency plans if Reese, 76, retires, the veteran coach said yesterday that he felt "really good about our future".
"He has done a phenomenal job; I want him to be better in the 100m and 200m freestyle, and he can do all that," Reese added.
With graduation, there is a period of transition for Schooling as he turns professional, where he is able to sign commercial deals, among other things.
While the cash injection is necessary for his survival - he was funded in his earlier years by his parents, and the government's Sports Excellence Scholarship in recent years - the influx will be tied with demands for his time and focus as well.
Schooling had a preview of such demands after Rio last year, and previously told The New Paper that he has learned how to manage them.
"I've definitely learned to say 'no' to certain opportunities, because I have to take care of my swimming, and I definitely forgot swimming was the priority in the first semester after the Olympics," he told TNP in an interview in June.
He will have to learn to strike a good balance between his training and the other demands outside the pool.
4 SUPPORT TEAM
As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and the analogy applies to top athletes as well.
Schooling credited the likes of biomechanist Ryan Hodierne and nutritionist Kristy Fairbairn for their roles in his Olympic victory in Rio last year.
The roles of such support staff will be amplified in the coming years, as the swimmer strives to be a multi-medallist at the Olympics, and he will need to surround himself with the best in each field, be it on his own dime or the Singapore Sports Institute's, to propel him to the top again.