It wasn't easy spotting Joseph Schooling around Belt 42 at Changi Airport Terminal 3 at 1am yesterday morning.
Had he not been accompanied by his mum, May, who had travelled back with him from Austin, Texas, this reporter would have missed him in a sea of Caucasians who just got off the SQ15 flight from San Francisco.
Not long ago, he was still a boy. Now, at 19 years old, Schooling is on the cusp of manhood, not to mention that he already has an Asian Games gold medal under his belt.
While he made his name in overseas races, Singaporeans can watch the swim sensation up close next month when he chases a perfect nine golds at the South-east Asia (SEA) Games.
Having recently gained 3kg of muscle from weight training in the United States, Schooling was almost unrecognisable until up close.
The 1.85-metre tall Schooling towered over the group of seven people who were at the airport to welcome him home, including his dad Colin, Oon Jin Teik (secretary general of the Singapore Swimming Association) and Jose Raymond (SSA vice-president, finance).
You couldn't tell that Schooling just endured a 30-hour journey from Austin, Texas, via three different flights.
He smiled and greeted the swim officials, hugged his dad, and obliged photographers every step of the way.
Perhaps it was because Schooling had a good rest in the business class.
May, however, wasn't so fortunate.
"There were these kids behind me, constantly kicking the chair," she told her husband about her economy class seat.
Just before his transit flight from Seoul, Schooling had been upgraded by Singapore Airlines - just him, though; not his mum.
"Yeah, I got lucky. My mum took one for the team," the swim sensation joked.
It's never difficult to get the personable and well-spoken Schooling in a chatty mood.
Bring up the topic of American college sports and you'd pique his interest.
"We just hired a new basketball coach," Schooling said, referring to the Texas Longhorns National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) team.
"His last name is Smart. Our football coach is (Charlie) Strong. So we're in good hands, as far as names suggest."
Based in the US since 2009, Schooling has taken well to his second home, even developing a slight American accent.
A year of training under renowned coach Eddie Reese in Texas and regular racing against top US swimmers have raised his swim strength to another level.
In March, he won three titles on his NCAA championships debut and was crowned the Big 12 Men's Newcomer of the Year.
Having already created history at last year's Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, where he won gold and silver in the 100m butterfly respectively, Schooling would be forgiven for taking the regional SEA Games lightly.
But he certainly isn't.
"I'm pretty pumped up for it. And yeah, nine golds is possible. You know me, whenever I jump in the pool, I want to win," he said.
If he succeeds, he will emulate the achievements of former swim queen Joscelin Yeo, who bagged nine golds the last time the Games was held here in 1993.
Only Patricia Chan (twice) and Junie Sng have won more golds (10) at a single SEA Games.
When asked if he was concerned about competing in too many events, Schooling juxtaposed himself with national teammate Quah Zheng Wen.
"He's doing 12 events, so nine is nothing. I've been well rested. I was having exams the past couple of weeks, so training was only once or twice a day," he said. "The next five days for me are pretty packed with events and meeting people.
"I will get some pool time in between, of course, before the centralised training camp starts (a week before the Games)."
Schooling managed to take some time out yesterday afternoon to get his first taste of the pool at the new OCBC Aquatic Centre, where the swimming competition will be held from June 6-11.
"It's a world-class facility, and I'm excited to race in it. It feels like a fast pool," he said. "I'm also pretty stoked about the revolving stage, where the swimmers are introduced. I haven't seen it yet; I think it'll be up next week.
"But that's going to be pretty cool."
This article was first published on May 23, 2015.
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