The 16-year-old sits quietly with his teammates at the foyer of the Marina Mandarin Hotel. Wearing national colours for the first time, he feels out of place. Around him are seasoned gold-medal medal winners from the previous SEA Games in Laos two years ago.
All he has to show heading to the next Games in Jakarta in five days are a couple of under-17 records in the 100m and 200m butterfly (fly) records posted five months ago. They are paltry in comparison to the veterans’ but he is also the baby in the team and the boyish grin shows.
Just as well the media scrum did not give Joseph Schooling a second glance. Their attention is on women’s swimming star Tao Li, on whose shoulders rest a nation’s expectations of a medal haul.
Tao Li did not disappoint and delivered seven gold medals. Schooling returned home with two, in the 50m and 200m fly, and a bronze in the 100m. But he got the attention of the press.
That was in 2011. From then on it was an almost vertical ascent to the summit of world swimming for Schooling. First, as SEA Games champion in 2013 and then in 2015 on the back of five and nine gold medals. In between those years, as a 100m fly world-beater with silver at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gold.
Schooling served noticed he was something special at the World Championships last year, when he came in third behind winner Chad le Clos of South Africa and Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, two of the best fly specialists in the business.
Still, none could have fathomed that someone from South-east Asia, much less from a little Red Dot, could beat swimming legend Michael Phelps, Le Clos and Cseh to clinch the 100m fly in record time at the Olympics in Brazil last Friday.
PHOTOS: Schooling in action in Rio, and snapshots of his whirlwind tour in Singapore post-win.
Schooling triggered a euphoria never seen in Singapore and response to the nation’s first Olympic gold medal winner came quick and fast.
The Army, ahead of the queue, extended his National Service (NS) deferment for another four years. Then Parliament sat in a special session to congratulate him.
“I’m glad the Government recognises the effort I’ve put in,” says the 21-year-old on his return home. “The NS deferment will be a boost to my 2020 Tokyo Olympics campaign. It’s a weight off my shoulders.”
It means he is next hunting down a world record and more Olympic medals, with the 200m fly and individual medley races his targets now as well.
But he knows a path beater is about leading others and adds: “I hope this will also pave the way for budding athletes in Singapore, and give them the leeway to train, honour and bring glory to the country.”
For an Olympic champion from a country that had never had one, Schooling attracted an unexpected rush from companies who raced to honour him with advertisements in newspapers and retail incentives.
The overwhelming response from businesses can be interpreted as capitalising on the toil and success of an athlete they were never part of, but it could also turn out to be a windfall for Singapore’s sports.
It is an unexpected return from Schooling’s journey to gold in Brazil that took 15 years and $1.5 million his parents, May and Colin, paid out of their pockets.
It can benefit athletes, especially those from families without financial resources, who often have to abandon a similar Olympic dream because not many companies consider sports in Singapore a viable investment.
To keep this door to potential funding open, Schooling’s task is now to dispel any notion he is a flash in the pan and that the type of work he started is the real deal. And this means more blockbuster success at the highest level must follow as he envisions them.
Can he do it?
His coach at the University of Texas Eddie Reese believes Schooling has the package to deliver. The Singapore star’s kick in the butterfly swim, says the former United States Olympic team coach, is “one of the best in the world”.
“He is the closest human to a dolphin under water,” says Reese.
But the most important gift Schooling has given to sport is that he showed its incredible power to unite a country. Saturday morning, August 13 in Singapore (Friday in Brazil) was a watershed moment that will encourage other athletes and their families to dream very big, too.
“We have the resources,” says the Singapore trailblazer. “And we have the talent, for sure. I think we do have what it takes. Now, especially, we have the exposure and the belief to develop Olympic champions.”