Schooling in Phelps' way

Schooling in Phelps' way
PHOTO: The New Paper

Picture this.

The most decorated swimmer of all-time, the greatest in the history of the sport, a record 18-time Olympic gold medallist and 35-time world champion, consistently tracking the performances of a 20-year-old Singaporean with one world championship bronze to his name, as the clock ticks down to the Rio Olympic Games in August.

It is being billed as THE COMEBACK, when Michael Phelps makes his return to Olympic swimming this year in Brazil and much of the focus around the world will be on the 30-year-old superstar, but Joseph Schooling could well have a say in how successful the Baltimore-based American is at the end of it all.

Over last weekend, Schooling made waves at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Championships in Atlanta, winning the 100-yard and 200-yard butterfly events in record-breaking times.

200 Butterfly Men NCAA Championships

WOW! 1:37.97 for Joseph Schooling in the 200 butterfly! Wait, what? #Ridiculous

Posted by Myswimpro on Saturday, March 26, 2016

Schooling, who has been faster than every American other than Phelps in the 100m butterfly over the last 12 months, is hardly cowed at the prospect of going up against the greatest swimmer in history.

He said: "It's nice to do well against these guys who are some of the best swimmers around, but I've reached the stage now where I don't really care who I'm up against, whether they are 12 years old or 33 years old, it's all about winning the race.

"I'm not really closely monitoring Phelps or Le Clos, but I have an intuitive feel that they are ready and they will be hard to beat.

"It feels good to be regarded as a contender. When someone writes me off, I use that to my advantage because I'm really stubborn and I want to prove them wrong.

"But when I'm among the favourites, that's great too because it's a recognition of how hard I've worked to get there, and I want to live up to that billing.

See also: How dinner with Joseph Schooling became a $25,000 donation

WORKS BOTH WAYS

"Either way it works well for me."

Schooling finished third in the 100m butterfly final at last year's world championships in Kazan, Russia, breaking the national record and setting a new Asian record.

He touched the wall in 50.96sec, just 0.4s short of champion Chad Le Clos of South Africa. Hungary's Laszlo Cseh took silver in 50.87.

Schooling's time is behind Phelps' season-leading 50.45 and Le Clos' 50.56. Phelps holds the world record in the event with his time of 49.82, set in 2009.

But in an elite field that will be gunning for Olympic glory, Schooling says he will not be thinking of the time when he gets on the starter's blocks in Rio.

"If Phelps had posted 48 seconds and broken the world record, I honestly wouldn't have cared... It's all about who can get their hand on the wall first, and that's how it will be in Rio."

While he has met the Olympic "A" times in three events, he will compete in just two - the 100m butterfly and the 200m butterfly or the 100m freestyle.

Phelps won both butterfly sprints at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, retained the 100m fly gold but only just lost the 200m fly by a touch to Le Clos in 2012 in London.

He does not swim the 100m freestyle.

National swimming coach Sergio Lopez worked with Schooling for five years at the Bolles School and was responsible for the latter's rise, before the Singaporean graduated and joined Eddie Reese at the University of Texas last year. The American believes his former charge can win a medal in more than one event at this year's Olympics.

Said Lopez: "Jo hasn't had good times in the 200m fly, but that doesn't mean he cannot come up with one now because he has been training for it.

"As for the 100m free, he set his national record of 48.58 at last year's SEA Games without being 100 per cent.

"He knows he is capable of a 47-something, which would have been good enough to medal at the World Championships.

"If he does that at the Olympics, he can win a medal in the 100m free."

Schooling has a three-day break after the NCAA Championships ended on Sunday, and will resume weights training and long-course training afterwards.

Lopez, who won bronze in the 200m breaststroke at the 1988 Olympics, knows that Phelps and Le Clos will have their sights on Schooling after the Singapore star won five golds, one silver and a bronze at the NCAA Championships and shared the Swimmer of the Year award with former Bolles teammates Ryan Murphy and Caeleb Dressel.

See also: Singapore swimmer Schooling joins elite company with multiple golds

AWARE OF JO

Said the Singapore coach: "The work Jo has done reaffirms that he is one of the best in the world. Phelps is intelligent and experienced. He will analyse his competition left and right and he will have Jo in his sights.

"I know Chad's coach and I know they are definitely aware of Jo.

"Jo is not an underdog anymore, he will be regarded as one of the medal contenders. The advantage Jo has over the rest of the field is none of them are aged 18 to 20...

"They are 23 to 31 and have been swimming within their best times for a while now, while Jo can still make big improvements with his times.

"His performance at the NCAA definitely makes the Americans think, 'I need to beat Jo to win a medal'... he needs to focus on himself and not worry about things he has no control about...

"He has a very good coach in Eddie Reese and teammates.

"So he goes through every day with a purpose. Definitely he is ready."

See also: Joe's got more in the tank

davidlee@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on March 29, 2016.
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