The hardest thing for me: Joseph Schooling

The hardest thing for me: Joseph Schooling

In the call room, he's still safe. In the call room, where swimmers gather before a race, he says, there are "some who talk to you, some who crack jokes. I avoid all this. I hate talking". In the cramped call room, with its eight big men with eight bigger egos, he's "zoned out", losing himself in music.

But Joseph Schooling's calm is about to be shaken.

The swimmers are called and suddenly there he is, by the blocks, the water waiting, the world watching, his name on the board in front and world record holders by his side. It's no longer safe.

This right now, for a boy swimmer of 18, is the hardest thing in his world.

"The real problem," said Schooling last month in Singapore, reflecting candidly on his successful year, "is when you take off the headphones and hear the crowd". The noise, and firing of camera flashes, is his raucous reality check. He can't crawl back to the call room; he has to literally strip and metaphorically stand exposed in front of the world. This is real.

At July's world championships, Chad le Clos, slayer of Michael Phelps in London 2012, is in Joseph's 200m butterfly semi-final. At last year's Olympics, Joseph swims with Phelps and he can hear him, for the American with the 208cm wingspan is swinging his arms and slapping his body like gunshots going off.

"It's a message," says Joseph, "he makes his presence felt."

In their caps, goggles and dark, clingy outfits, swimmers resemble a lean tribe of outwardly fearless aliens, but this, the start, is their most human moment. Especially for the young, who naturally question if they are worthy of the company they are keeping. They might strut, but it only camouflages their most basic fear: Do I belong here?

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