Schooling the perfect ambassador
After setbacks in 2012, Joe's composed himself and oozes confidence in whatever he does
Just days ago, I was reading a feature I had written on Joseph Schooling five years ago.
It was published just after he had returned to Singapore from the Bolles School, Florida, and rewrote three national records at the Singapore National Swimming Championships.
Even then, his aim was to be an Olympic champion - by Rio 2016, or Tokyo 2020.
I responded by pointing out that no Singaporean had ever achieved that feat.
"If you're the first person to do it, then you'll be a legend.
"That's another motivator. Singapore has never done it before, so why not be the first to do it?"
Just five years on, he has achieved his goal, beat his childhood idol Michael Phelps in the process, and rewritten an Olympic record.
Champions don't always behave well though, and it is heartening to see that the young man has been nothing short of being a perfect ambassador for Singapore in the international sporting arena.
An officer and a gentleman, I would often hear Joe's father, Colin, say over the years when he was asked what he'd like his only child to be.
And a gentleman he has been, ever since the world's attention had been thrust upon him with his Olympic feat.
There were no triumphant speeches straight after his win in Rio de Janeiro, only quips about what the medal means for Singapore.
And after a long flight from Rio to Singapore, where flight time alone exceeded 20 hours, the jet-lagged champion still spent some 70 minutes interacting with practically all the fans he could reach at Changi Airport early on Monday morning.
Big companies bought full-page advertisements to congratulate him, and there was no doubt that everyone wanted a piece of him during his short sojourn back.
But his engagements so far?
A private breakfast with close friends and family, a trip to the Parliament on Monday, a trip to his alma mater Anglo-Chinese School (Junior) yesterday, and the inevitable press session, before interacting with the aquatics fraternity last evening.
People who matter to him.
Asked yesterday if he felt he's changed over the past few years, he said: "I think I have matured a lot. I have changed in the way I see things... I know how to handle things much better.
"Sometimes people throw me weird questions and stuff. At least now I know how to handle it."
He definitely held his own yesterday at the Black Box Auditorium at the Sports Hub, during a press conference with some 100 local and international media.
Sticky questions - like articles about him hitting a girl up on dating app Tinder - were handled with humour and deflection.
But, it hadn't always been easy for him.
"For me, 2012 just sucked. It didn't motivate me to do anything," he said.
"If anything it motivated me not to try anymore."
He had bombed out of his first Olympics in London, after the infamous caps-and-goggles fiasco.
Schooling then hurt his ankle badly and couldn't compete, and proceeded to lash out at his then-Bolles coach Sergio Lopez.
He explained: "I sucked at the Olympics, I got hurt, I couldn't swim and I had a bad attitude. Those three things don't combine well. That's the lowest point of my career."
But parents Colin and May, close friends like fellow national swimmer Teo Zhen Ren, and Lopez "dug him out of the hole".
Lopez would always tell him: stay the course.
Joe mused: "That means a lot. That's a really loaded saying. It can be in the pool or out of the pool."
That support group, which also includes his University of Texas swim team and the Singapore Swimming Association, will keep him grounded in the coming years, with more distractions inevitable due to his elevated status.
That groundedness, instilled by loving parents, friends and mentors, has seen him get his Olympic rings tattoo only yesterday - something other athletes have gotten inscribed right after making their debut at sport's biggest stage.
"I wasn't going to get this tattoo unless I was at very least in the top eight (in Rio)," he said.
"But, if I didn't medal, I would have some doubts. At the very least, I needed a bronze.
"This tattoo means something. It means something special. Even the tattoo on my back (a Texas Longhorns logo). Anything I put on myself has deep meaning, it's important to me."
He has certainly earned his rings, both inside and outside the sporting arena.
FULL CIRCLE: Joseph Schooling (right) has gone from idolising swimming legend Michael Phelps (left) to becoming a hero to his own fans. TNP PHOTO: GAVIN FOO