How Swimmer Joseph Schooling Became an Olympic Champion

Alcalde, July|August

Joseph Schooling is a member of an elite club: He is among a handful of Longhorn swimmers to have won an NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championship during all four of his years at UT. As a freshman in 2015, the Singapore native swept the butterfly events and helped the Longhorns capture gold in the 400-yard medley relay. He repeated that feat a year later, and racked up two more victories as part of the 200- and 800-yard freestyle relays. By the time he graduated from UT with a BA in December 2018, Schooling was a 12-time NCAA champion.

Now 24, Schooling is most famous for beating Michael Phelps, his childhood idol, in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. That victory gave Singapore its first- ever Olympic gold medal and made Schooling a national hero.

The two-time Olympian left Texas for good in February and is back home in Singapore training for the 2020 Tokyo Games. Despite a grueling workout regimen, he recently opened a swim school for children called Swim Schooling. The Alcalde spoke with him about the new venture and asked about the advice he followed to get to where he is today.

Find Your Drive

Schooling learned to swim when he was 10 months old. At age 4 he competed in his first race, and by 9 he was training twice a day. “My love for the water drove me early on,” he says. “I’m the strongest and the most vulnerable in the pool. It’s the only way I have so far of knowing what makes me tick.” He also hates to lose. “The thought of losing gets me riled up. It’s unacceptable.”

Choose a Role Model

After watching Phelps win six gold medals at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Schooling decided he wanted to become an elite swimmer.“Phelps was the catalyst; I wanted to be like him,” he says. This ambition would uproot his family. At age 13, Schooling moved to Jacksonville, Florida, to attend the Bolles School, a preparatory and boarding school, that has a renowned swimming program. His parents bought a house nearby to live close to their only child. “They would take turns going back and forth between Jacksonville and Singapore every few months, while also running a business,” Schooling says. “They were on the same continent for three days out of three months.” The shuffle hurt his parents’ tobacco business in Asia, and their marriage, but they did it so their son could have a shot at his dream. “Admiring my parents is an understatement,” Schooling says.

Catch a Big Break

In 2011, Schooling surprised himself by dropping two seconds from his time to win the 200-meter butterfly at the Southeast Asian Games in Indonesia. The 1:56.67 he posted qualified him for the 2012 London Olympics. “Everything came together in that one race. It was a turning point, the moment when I thought, Hey, I can hang on this level. I belong on this stage.”

Overcome Your Setbacks

“My dad says the blind man does not fear the tiger. I had no idea what was in store for me in London,” he recalls. Schooling entered with high expectations, became very nervous, and failed to make the semifinals at his first Olympics in the 200-meter fly, his prime event. Minutes before his race, officials told him his brand of cap and goggles, TYR, was not permitted. A flustered Schooling scrambled to replace his gear and swam more than two seconds slower than his seed time. “As a young kid, if you don’t check your expectations and if you haven’t dealt with failure on a mature level, it can be very hard to bounce back.” Schooling battled debilitating disappointment for six months after the games, often skipping practice and arguing with his then-coach Sergio Lopez. Eventually the two had a major row and stopped talking. “Time is the only thing that really heals a blow like that—time and surrounding yourself with good people,” says Schooling, whose family and friends backed him unconditionally. “I also knew Sergio loved me, so I had to man-up and apologize. Schooling says he and his ex-coach have an “incredible bond” now.

Stay Grounded

Schooling is an ambassador for the Singapore-based Viva Foundation for Children with Cancer, a charity that helps cancer survivors through research, education, and medical care. “You see kids, 7 or 8 years old, who come in with terminal cancer, and you don’t know how much longer they’ll live. It’s a huge reality check for me,” he says. “We get caught up in our bubbles sometimes and don’t realize these things happen. I get to inspire these kids, and it’s taught me humility and appreciation for life.”

Give Back

When his mother, May, asked for his help starting a learn-to-swim program for children last July, Schooling jumped at the chance. “In Singapore there have been cases of kids drowning during swim lessons, so we wanted to change how people learn to swim and become involved in the sport,” he says. Swim Schooling now has two locations in Singapore and may soon expand to Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Classes equip students with water safety skills and help foster in them a love for swimming that will withstand the pressures of adolescence and high-performance training. Above all, Schooling wants them to enjoy the water.

Plan for the Future

“I want to be president of Singapore,” he says. The dream started as a joke but grew into a serious desire. “The prime minister has all the power here and makes the big decisions, so the president is more of a figurehead, a beacon of light and role model. There would be no greater honor to me.” The economics major also wants to work in wealth management, and he loves to golf. He dreams of winning the Singapore Open as an amateur. “How funny would that be?” he laughs. “I think I can do it.”

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