SINGAPORE: Joseph Schooling looked up and slammed his fist into the water. He knew the clock did not lie.
At 9.15am on August 13, 2016 in Singapore, he had stopped the race clock at 50.39s.
He had just beaten boyhood hero Michael Phelps, history’s most decorated Olympian, in the 100m butterfly. And at the Olympics no less, a sporting stage that had become the backyard of Phelps.
The scenes that followed in Rio de Janeiro have now been seared into the Singapore psyche: Two other world class exponents of the butterfly, Laszlo Cseh and Chad Le Clos, stood alongside Phelps in an unprecedented three-way tie for silver behind the triumphant Schooling, as Majulah Singapura played at an Olympic venue for the first time.
SOUTHEAST ASIAN ROYALTY
Even the rest of Southeast Asia lapped it all up, coming out in droves for Schooling at the 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.
No doubt the 24-year-old will again be the biennial Games’ headline act when he takes to the pool for the first time at these Games at the New Clark City Aquatic Centre on Dec 5.
Schooling is swimming royalty in the region. He had a target on his back but still struck gold six times in 2017.
The gloss of his Olympic win has yet to wane – Schooling remains the only reigning Olympic champion swimmer at the Philippines Games – and the king of these pools will inevitably add to his 23-gold medal haul.
He is penciled in for six events – the 50m and 100m butterfly, 100m freestyle and three relays – and few would bet against him from returning with six more gold medals.
But the clock does not lie. This time it will be a little different.
THE SPRINT TO TOKYO
Schooling will still be a hunted man in New Clark City, but he is on a more important hunt of his own. His name is etched in swimming annals, next to the 50.39 seconds he took to slice through water and into history in Rio.
But the clock also shows that he is yet to be back to his best in his pet event, the 100m butterfly. He has not gone below 51 seconds since 2017 and an up-and-down 2019 saw him clock 52.93s at his last outing at the Fina World Championships in July.
He was a paltry 24th, and it is unthinkable that he will not secure a ticket to defend his crown at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
There is a real danger that he will not make it to Japan, and the calendar tells us that time is running out. There are but five months until the Apr 30 deadline that the Singapore Swimming Association has set for swimmers to meet the Olympic qualifying mark.
Just 147 days from his first race in Philippines for the swimmer who decided as a child that he was going to go to the Olympics then went out and beat the greatest of all time en route to achieving his dream.
IT’S ALL CHANGED
It is in the manner in which he managed that feat that several sportswriters now look back on and hint that the legend of Schooling may well have reached the end of its wick.
There have been several changes in his life – he has left the champion-incubating environment of the United States, moved back to Singapore, under a different coach, back in the home under the watchful gaze of his parents.
Although he has since moved out, he is now closer to friends and a short hop away from his favourite chye tow kueh.
Where once there was a singular focus – pool, school, pool – to fine-tune every facet of the kick, kick, pull that propelled Schooling to greatness, there are now commercial obligations for a Singapore millionaire pro athlete. It is now smile, pose, snap and post.
JOE IS STILL JOE
Times have changed and the athlete must evolve as his life does, but still in there is the same Joe Schooling.
A man who puts his hand up when he fumbles: "I had a 'whatever' attitude, I didn't care about swimming... I didn't have the motivation," he said in 2018, of his dip in form after striking Olympic gold.
He is an honest thinker who knows what needs to be done: "All I can do is to go back and fix the things I could have done and do better," said Schooling after crashing out of this July’s Fina World Championships.
And a competitor who has, in bundles, that distinctive quality often approximated as a will to win: “I'm a good racer because one, I hate to lose, I just don't like it, and two, racing is the thing about swimming that excites me."
At these SEA Games, Schooling will face US-based Vietnamese Paul Le Nguyen, Navaphat Wongcharoen of Thailand, Malaysia’s Welson Sim, Luke Gebbie of the Philippines, and even fellow countryman Quah Zheng Wen, but the clock is his real focus.
Schooling has his back against the wall now, and perhaps that is exactly where he needs to be. It is no secret that he prefers being the hunter, nor is there any doubt that he has crafted a legend out of proving doubters wrong.
He has delivered when the odds are stacked against him. Indeed, he seems to prefer it when they are.
He will swim at the SEA Games, but his eyes are trained on the horizon, where his former high-school teammate Caeleb Dressel and Kristof Milak, the Hungarian teenager whose meteoric rise echoes that of a young Schooling, are now holding court at the top table of the sport.
Milak broke Phelps’ 200m butterfly world record at July’s Fina World Championships in Korea, where Dressel also made the 100m butterfly world record – the one that Schooling said he was chasing after – his own.
He’s already beaten the best, so it is not hard to imagine that falling behind has got Schooling’s goat.
And that’s why there should be little doubt that Joe will romp to gold at the 2019 SEA Games.
But you can be sure that he will be instantly looking up when he hits the wall at the New Clark City Aquatic Centre – because the clock does not lie.
Shamir Osman was a former sports journalist for 12 years before crossing the aisle to work in public relations.