Schooling also makes grade as a class act outside the pool

When the SEA Games arrive in town next June, go and see Joseph Schooling in action.

Not just when he competes in the pool - a rarity in Singapore as he is based in America - but also when he is outside the water.

He will still be 19 then, and could be on his way to a seven-gold haul, but because it is so easy to be enthralled by his potential to win historic medals and break long-time records that we overlook just how he carries himself in major occasions.

Watch his demeanour the moment he walks out from the holding area. First, you notice his calm as he walks towards his lane, his head up, his fist-pumps to his heart, soaking in the occasion, well-prepared. Then he battles, all sinewy muscles as he ploughs through the water.

For a minute or two, he is no longer 19 but resembles a 21st-century man-machine chewing up the seconds that define swimming excellence.

Then, watch him again at the finish. More fist pumps if he wins - this time directed towards his team-mates, his coaches and the two most important people in his life, his parents Colin and May. But if he fails to land gold, watch him sulk - for a fleeting few seconds - before he seeks out and congratulates his better rivals, without fail.

He is not in the business of being second-best; his desire to win is so strong that his disappointment at losing is undisguised.

Yet, no angsty antics from Schooling, even though he has said repeatedly that he gets angry when he does not win. In the Asian Games context, he is more the docile Korean, Park Tae Hwan, than the incendiary Sun Yang from China. Certainly, he is far from the finished product.

Pressure can still get to him and cause him to swim some dud races as he did early in July's Commonwealth Games. But in a feisty age of cheaters and biters in sports, it's still refreshing to see young athletes like Schooling who understand the need for graciousness in sport.

His competitive fire is evident in his almost-arrogant quip that his rivals will have to "die trying" to catch him. Yet it is refreshing that he is always ready to face the media - alone.

There are no anxious team managers eavesdropping on his post-race comments; they are comfortable leaving him to articulate his emotions, win or lose. This is a rarity in the current environment that spawns inarticulate athletes who are over-protected by sports' governing bodies.

So we have to thank Colin and May who have let Joseph handle his life himself. By doing so, they have shaped a world-wise teenager whose burning ambition does not scald the emotions of those around him.

So, yes, go and watch him as someone on the cusp of becoming a great Singapore athlete.

But, most of all, watch him balance intensity with grace, treating arch-rivals with respect and showing that class never gets old, no matter how young you are.


This article was first published on September 28, 2014.
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