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Staying grounded

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 13 min read
Staying grounded
SINGAPORE (Feb 21): The International Olympic Committee has said the Tokyo 2020 Games and Paralympic Games will go ahead even as the Covid-19 virus outbreak continues to cause global concern. While most of the world can only wait to see what happens, you
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SINGAPORE (Feb 21): The International Olympic Committee has said the Tokyo 2020 Games and Paralympic Games will go ahead even as the Covid-19 virus outbreak continues to cause global concern. While most of the world can only wait to see what happens, you can be sure that Singaporean sports hero Joseph Schooling is only concerned with one thing – staying fighting fit for the coming games.

Options met up with the Eurasian champion – who snagged Singapore’s first ever Olympic gold medal for swimming at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro – late last year at the TAG Heuer boutique at Wisma Atria. The staff at the VIP room arranged for a dish of nuts and dried fruits and a bottle of water to be placed in the room, we were told that Schooling was in training and had to be careful with his snacks.

The 1.8m tall athlete, who has been TAG Heuer’s friend of the brand since 2018, is candid about his training approach for Tokyo 2020. He says, “The only difference would be how my body feels now. Four years later, of course the body goes through a lot more wear and tear. Recovery is slower because you’re older you have to stay on top of these things more often.”

Schooling is also not afraid to admit that he is “slower”. To counter this, Schooling sticks to a strict regimen, balancing ample rest and intense training with his coach Sergio Lopez. Schooling had worked with Lopez from 2010 to 2014: The Spaniard and former Olympian also stood by Schooling at the Rio Games, where he beat his childhood idol Michael Phelps for the Olympic gold (a photo of a 13-year-old Schooling meeting Phelps at the 2008 Beijing Olympics also went viral then).

Perhaps this renewed partnership with Lopez could be another win for the athlete, born in 1995 to May and Colin Schooling. You could say that he set his mind on sports from very early on. At the age of six, the younger Schooling decided he wanted to swim competitively. At age 14, he left Singapore to train at Bolles School in the USA under Spanish coach Sergio Lopez. In 2012, he made his Olympic debut at the London Olympic Games as the youngest member of Singapore’s contingent. An equipment mix-up resulted in a poor performance. A disappointed Schooling famously said “champions don’t make excuses”, and vowed to bounce back. And he did.

Which brings us back to our chat at Wisma Atria. In between mouthfuls of nuts and fruit (which he graciously offered this writer), Schooling talks about the pressure to win, dealing with success and his biggest supporters – his parents.

Do you feel the pressure to win at Tokyo 2020, more pressing especially after the gold medal in 2016?
It’s hard to say if it is more pressing or not. It’s a different kind of pressure. Before 2016 it was a pressure that you put on yourself – a personal pressure that you only felt because you wanted to get there and something that you aspire and you dreamt about your whole life.

That was the pressure then, now it’s kind of your own personal expectations and also the expectations of people everywhere because coming back as defending
champion is a whole different game than going in there as an unknown 21-year-old with big dreams.

At the end of the day it is all about managing those expectations and realising that the only pressure you should be worried about or not worried but that you should expend energy on is pressure from yourself. I think you need to learn how to deal with that. It is not like an instant switch where you can just snap your fingers and learn to deal with it. It is something that happens day in and day out.

I describe the pressure as something stepping down on you slowly, weighing you down bit by bit, it’s not like a huge shock. At the end of the week or at the end of the month the training cycle or whatever it may be you find yourself a bit more tired than you are used to and that’s because of all these external factors weighing you down.

Once you identify that, you switch it up mentally, switch it up also with your support group on how to manage things. And you can go back to trying to be the best again.

TAG Heuer Aquaracer Calibre 5 with Rubber Strap

How much of TAG Heuer’s Don’t Crack Under Pressure do you apply in competitions?
I think with every athlete and also myself that’s the kind of our tagline you think about when you step up and race. Everyone at the Olympics or on the world stage can physically do pretty much the same things. We are separated by hundredths of a second tenths and at the end of the day, it is who is able to get themselves up and step up when they need to. I would say that’s why you have got to practice these things day in and day out. Practise so that when you get to the race you don’t think much at all. The more you think, the more you’re gonna ‘crack’.

Which TAG Heuer timepiece do you have on your wrist most of the time?
Today I am wearing the Aquaracer. Most of the time I wear the Carrera 01. I like it because it has the skeleton face and it’s a very special watch for me because it is
very versatile. You can wear it for casual events or you can wear it with a suit; it looks great. It’s comfortable and you feel comfortable wearing it … you rock what you wear. If you look good, you feel good and you do good.

How do you handle stress and pressure?
You just focus on what you need to be doing and not what anyone else thinks that you should be doing. Of course critical thinking when it comes to this is super
important as you hear different things from outside maybe certain people want to give advice and you just filter out the things that do not make sense. One person might actually be saying something right but it may not work for you. The way to handle it you got to think more, you got to communicate more.

The hardest part for me was I used to be able to just go and practice day in and day out and crank out a set and get good results from it. But at the same time how
long does that work for you? Like I said, to get to the next level you need to do things differently. You need to think more. You can’t waste your time with training a certain way because it once worked for you. You got to accept that it is a bit different but you are still able to improve and identify what you need to do and move forward with that.

How do you handle fame? Many people now recognise you everywhere you go.
In Singapore it’s a bit hard, especially since we live in such a small country and it takes some getting used to. I didn’t really realise staying in Singapore as compared to living in the US and coming home for two or three weeks at a time and back to the US again to be a normal college kid.

So coming home took more out of me than anticipated and it’s one of those things where you need to go through the motions and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. I’ll give you an example: if we go out in public in a shopping centre you try not to think about all these people looking at me. You try not to think about the expectations that come with it. You just have to be in the moment and have a good time with your friends or your family or whoever you are with and that teaches you to be more present in the moment as well.

I think you learn how to appreciate those little things rather than walking around not having to care about anything. You appreciate the small little things. You make a positive situation out of anything that’s most important to you.

Younger people look up to you as their role model. That’s also another kind of pressure for you. How do you handle it?
Absolutely but at the same time you got to be yourself right? You can’t be fake about it so the moment you start trying to be something that you’re not or try to do things that people think that you should be doing, you’re not going to enjoy life. You are not going to be happy and if you are happy outside of the pool, you are going to do well.

Everything ties in together and that’s what I noticed. In college I used to think that going to class was a burden because you know you’ve got tests, exams and deadlines. But at the same time having school was a perfect distraction from always thinking about swimming.

Now coming back to Singapore as a pro athlete what do you do most of the time? You think about your sport right? How do I get better recovery, nutrition? But as you learn to adjust and grow you learn to incorporate all these things together. I guess to make your sport or your job [I don’t like to call it my job] more like your passion more enjoyable it becomes part of your lifestyle. That is key. You can’t look at it as a job you can’t look at it as a chore, although sometimes it feels like it, you can’t crack under those situations.

When you look at that picture taken of you as a little boy with Michael Phelps, what do you want to say to young Joseph?
Ok, here’s a little backstory before I answer that. I was actually doing a Chinese essay homework before that and that’s why I was wearing glasses and everything … I looked so out of it.

To my young self, I would probably say ‘stop writing and go out there and pay more attention’. I was so shy back then and me doing my essay was a way of trying to get my mum not to go and meet [Michael] because this guy just idolises him.

So I would have said put your pencil down and go watch what they do go and learn how they walk around the pool, their routines, how they warm up, how they talk to their coaches. I would say be more in touch with that part.

The second thing I will tell myself would be whatever you do there are going to be times that you do certain things that you don’t want to and that it is ok, have more patience. I find a positive in a negative. Yea, so it’s those two things: put your pencil down and go find positives in the negatives. Sometimes I get pretty uptight or unhappy about certain things that don’t go my way. It’s like a lot of athletes too we want things to be perfect, we want things to be systematic, we want things to go a certain way. You got to learn to develop these things as a kid. Lay the groundwork make more mistakes and don’t be afraid to fail. Everything else, I am pretty happy with me doing all the mistakes and all the good things that I have done.

What was your childhood like? How did your parents’ influences shape you to be the person you are today?
Mum and dad played a huge role like 99.9% for sure they are the best parents in the world. The way they brought me up is the way I want to bring my kid up in the future. Mum and dad always gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. They only pushed me when they saw me going down the wrong path. For the most part they allowed me to make certain mistakes that had almost no consequences but had huge learning curves.

They also showered me with a lot of love and support and I think those two things are super important which maybe a lot of parents these days are afraid to let their kids fail. I think mum and dad brought me up the right way and they are always there for me. They always supported my aspirations and dreams, no matter what even though it affected their business. Even though it affected family time such as staying in Florida with me for three months moving back and forth for four years. They dropped everything they had so that I could one day maybe get to where I always dreamt of being. I owe everything to them.

Describe your mum and dad in one word.
Mum would be loving. Dad would be principled – he’s the moral compass that you can’t break.

What motivates you?
Seeing how good I can get. You got to practice everyday. There are you’d be more comfortable staying in bed but at the same time swimming is the only way that I know to really see what makes me tick, to really learn about myself.

When you are in the pool and your heart rate is approaching 200 beats a minute and you start to feel angry, there’s a little voice in your head that tells you to relax. The little voice tells you to keep going and finding ways to lead your mind to that spot that really excites me. Like in the heat of the moment you know it’s like ‘screw this and screw that’ but at the same time bringing yourself back and pushing forward and doing things that you didn’t think was possible. That’s where the goal really lies.

What is the future of Joseph Schooling going to look like?
The best way to describe it is ‘up and down’. You set yourself up to have the best future right? But one of the biggest things I have learned and accepted is you can’t really have things your way and this is coming from an only child with parents that basically gave me everything I needed or wanted.

That is actually more impactful than how it sounds. So you got to grind through it. You got to be consistent about it. The last three years after the Olympics I had some ups and downs. You have some really good years and you also have some really bad years. You learn to deal with it. That’s how the career is and I guess you don’t really understand it until you go through that experience. The future is filled with ups and downs.

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