TOKYO: Less than a day after his exit from the 2020 Olympic Games, Joseph Schooling sits on a foldable chair in the shadow of the hulking Tokyo Aquatics Centre.
His demeanour is calm and he is ready to talk.
On Thursday, the 2016 Olympic champion failed to qualify for the 100m butterfly semi-finals. He clocked 53.12s in his heat and was 44th overall.
And just like he did in the mixed zone after his race, Schooling does not shy away from dissecting his performance.
“I gave it my best. And if my best was that today, it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be the same tomorrow. And I expect it to be better,” Schooling told CNA.
But it doesn’t make it sting any less.
“Right now, it is a tough learning curve. It's a painful one, especially at the Olympics. But at the same time, if I could change anything over the last 15 months, no, I have no regrets,” he said.
“I have no regrets going to Virginia. I have no regrets maturing to the person that I am today. I have no regrets with the performance in the pool. I am disappointed, but I wouldn't change that for anything in the world.”
Schooling masks the disappointment and hurt well. But it is still there, simmering below the surface.
“(I've) definitely moved away from disappointment, and more of an upset feeling. The disappointment is still there, but I think it's going to take a bit longer than 12 hours to fully process what happened,” he said.
“But it's okay … (I’ll) just take this time to reset, try not to think about swimming as much as much as possible, just embrace myself with all the support I’ve been getting, which is overwhelming … And come back and form a plan and go from there.”
What also remains is his will to battle, to fight, to push for more, said Schooling.
“The desire still there. There are just little things that we do ... that I need to improve on … trusting coaches, trusting the process, not second-guessing things,” he said.
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READ: 'It's hard to swallow': Joseph Schooling disappointed by butterfly performance at Olympics, vows to fight harder
A lot has been said online about Schooling’s performance in the pool. Not that it matters to him.
“Should I read it?” he asked, with a hint of a smile behind his mask.
“No, I don't really (read online comments) Like the only comments I read are (from) people that contact me on Instagram or text me, call me, my parents, my family, but as far as online portals, no, not at all. I stopped reading them after 2012.”
Given that he has set the bar so high, is it fair that others continue to have these expectations of him?
“That's a tricky one. So, I don't think anyone around me that knows me personally will demand or expect that. Fans I can understand. As an athlete, being in this position, they have every right to. But now the question is whether that gets to me, whether that affects me. It shouldn’t,” he replied.
“Expectations, pressure is always going to be there. It’s part of everything … So for me to say: ‘Oh no, like don't expect this from me,’ that's just me being unrealistic and living in la la land … I need to acknowledge that they're always going to be there, but just never let it get to me.
“So it's fair for them to have expectations. But I can only control what I do.”
SWIMMING FOR OTHERS
Instead, the reaction from the public after Thursday's race has given him new motivation, the 26-year-old said.
“One of the best pieces of advice I've gotten … was who do you swim for? You swim for the people in the stands or you swim for yourself and your family? And maybe in 2017 I thought yeah just swim for my friends, my family, people that know me,” explained Schooling.
“But after yesterday, looking at the amount of support - people that I don't even know coming out, putting their thoughts on the line - they don't owe me anything.”
READ: Singapore's champion and the fight to defend his Olympic crown: Joseph Schooling's Tokyo challenge
And swimming for them provides another dimension, added Schooling, who will return to Singapore on Saturday.
“Swimming for more people and swimming for people like that just takes you to a new level,” he said.
“It gives you a sense of serenity, it gives you a sense of confidence, and if you want to achieve something that you haven’t, you need to do things differently, need to have a higher purpose.”
Schooling said he never expected such a show of support.
“It’s been great, it’s been overwhelming, in a good way. I honestly didn't expect that many people to come out and show their support,” he said.
“It's a good surprise. All people - people that I don’t talk to, people that haven't talked to in a long time, have come out and show their support, and it means a lot to me.
“It gives me something so much more to swim for than just myself and my immediate family. And I think that's really powerful.”
Additional reporting by Wei Du.
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