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Singapore's champion and the fight to defend his Olympic crown: Joseph Schooling's Tokyo challenge

Singapore's champion and the fight to defend his Olympic crown: Joseph Schooling's Tokyo challenge

Singapore's Joseph Schooling won the 100m butterfly at the Rio Olympics. (File photo: AFP/Gabriel Bouys)

TOKYO: Who can forget that Saturday morning in Singapore five years ago when Joseph Schooling stunned the world at the Rio Olympics?

His explosive win in the 100m butterfly final at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Aug 12, 2016 sent the country into raptures.

Majulah Singapura rang out at an Olympic arena for the very first time, and a Singaporean stood on top of the podium.

On the step below were Michael Phelps, Chad Le Clos and Laszlo Cseh, swimming luminaries relegated to a three-way tie for silver.

It feels like an eternity ago.

The world has changed since that momentous triumph: We remain in the throes of a deadly pandemic; the Olympics were postponed for the first time; and a 10-year world record in Schooling’s pet event was finally broken.

On Thursday (Jul 29) evening, 26-year-old Schooling will begin the defence of his Olympic gold at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in the shadow of an American who looks set to light up the sport for years to come.

In Rio, it was Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time. This time in Asia, it is Caeleb Dressel - the Godzilla-esque wunderkind tipped to take over the mantle from Phelps.

Caeleb Dressel swam the first leg for the USA's victorious 4x100m freestyle relay team at the Tokyo Olympics AFP/Oli SCARFF

Dressel has one Olympic gold under his belt from Rio, in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay. At this edition in Tokyo, he is eyeing at least five more.

One of which is the 100m butterfly. The Olympic record of 50.39s belongs to Schooling, but the world record - 49.50s - is Dressel's. 

And the numbers speak for themselves: Dressel has gone under the 50-second mark five times since the 2016 Olympics, while Schooling has yet to breach that barrier.

The American also has this year's fastest time at 50.17s. In contrast, Schooling's fastest time in 2021 came when he clocked 52.93s to finish behind Dressel at the ISCA International Senior Cup in March.

The challenge to Schooling’s five-year reign will not only come from Dressel; the 100m butterfly, one of swimming’s marquee races, will be stacked once more with talent in Tokyo.

The ones to watch include Hungary’s Kristof Milak, a sub-51s swimmer who clocked 50.18s earlier this year - a mere 0.01s off 2021’s best timing.

Australia’s Matthew Temple is also no slouch, posting 50.45s last month.

So what about Singapore’s Olympic champion?

Since 2016, Schooling has gone under 51s thrice: Twice at the 2017 FINA World Championships and once at a meet in the US.

While he did clinch Asian Games gold in Jakarta in 2018 with a new meet record, he did so in 51.04s.

On Tuesday, Schooling took to the pool in the 100m freestyle heats. While not his favourite event, he finished a country mile off his national record to place 6th in his heat. Overall, he placed 39th among 70 competitors

It was a "tough" time, admitted the Singaporean, who added that he would need to step it up.

Now, with the cobwebs off, Schooling looks ahead to the defence of his title.

“Freestyle is always like a hit or miss for me. But at the same time, I'm excited for what's going to happen in two days,” he said on Tuesday after his 100m freestyle heat.

“It's been a weird 15 months; the time I posted was maybe about a second ahead of anything I've done, leading up to this meet. So, that's a good reflection on where the ‘fly’ is going to be, and the emphasis has been on the 100m butterfly.”

READ: Swimming: Schooling says less pressure at Tokyo Olympics after 'rollercoaster' of past few years

Joseph Schooling won Singapore's first Olympic gold medal in 2016 AFP/Martin BUREAU


Schooling’s calm and composed demeanour will undoubtedly help him prepare for his 100m butterfly heat on Thursday evening.

In an interview with CNA in Tokyo on Jul 20, Schooling said he was looking forward to his races and aiming to be "the best version of (himself)" in the water.

"The goal is always to win, right? So, being on the podium would be nice," he said.

"I know what I can do; at the end of the day, there's really no expectations on my shoulders."

And others have echoed this as well. 

At a press conference before the Tokyo Olympics, Singapore Sports Institute chief Toh Boon Yi said that a medal target had not been set for Schooling or any members of Singapore's contingent competing at the Games.

"Joseph has already made history and this is something that nobody can take away from him. He will go down in history as that young man that won Singapore's first gold medal," said Toh.

Indeed, Schooling’s name will forever be etched in Singapore’s history. 

And whatever he scripts in this chapter of his storied career, watching him fight to defend his crown in Tokyo will be no less compelling than his incredible groundbreaking campaign five years ago.

Catch the Olympics Games Tokyo 2020 LIVE with 14 dedicated channels on meWATCH. Sign in now at and get into the action with Mediacorp, Singapore’s Olympics Network.

Source: CNA/mt(rw)


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