Schooling graduates to Gold

AS THE announcer read his name, Joseph Schooling sat on the lane rope, thumped his chest and pointed to his cheering Singapore team-mates in the stands, before falling back into the water.

The playful post-race celebration, megawatt smile and unmistakable glint in his eyes said it all.

Schooling was a happy man last night. Because making history - and breaking records - usually does that to people.

In 51.76 seconds, the butterfly specialist swam his way into the history books yesterday, ending Singapore's 32-year wait for an Asian Games men's swimming gold medal.

Under the silvery dome of the Munhak Park Tae Hwan Aquatics Centre, the 19-year-old touched home in the 100m butterfly in an Asian Games record time, ahead of China's Li Zhuhao (51.91) and Japan's Hirofumi Ikebata (52.08).

Ang Peng Siong was the last male swimmer to clinch a gold for Singapore at the quadrennial meet when he won the 100m freestyle at the 1982 Games in New Delhi.

Grinning as he met reporters after his win, Schooling, whose victory brought Singapore's first gold at the Incheon Asiad, said: "Before the race, I was really confident.

"I knew I had a good chance to win, that if I put myself out there, (swim a) strong first 50m and give it all I could (in the last 50m) coming home, I'd be up there.

"I wasn't really thinking about that (winning Singapore's first Asian Games men's swimming gold in more than three decades) but it's always good to know that you are breaking records and surpassing milestones... and I'm really honoured I can do that for my country."

The time was fractionally off his personal best of 51.69sec - Asia's best time this year - clocked at July's Commonwealth Games, where he clinched a silver.

Yesterday, he timed 24.17sec at the split, 0.07sec quicker than his split in Glasgow, but 0.02sec behind Ikebata.

Eventually, Schooling's class told and he surged forward in the final 50m while his team-mates maintained a relentless chorus of "Come on Joseph," in the background. He said: "It really means a lot to me. I'm overjoyed. At the end, I could see that I was ahead, and if someone wanted to overtake me, they'd have to die trying."

Jessie Phua, chef de mission for Team Singapore in Incheon, said: "If May (Joseph's mother) is trembling (in the stands), so am I.

"It has been a heart-stopping day but if I have to live every day like this, I would willingly do it."

Schooling's coach in high school, Sergio Lopez, was not surprised by his protege's win.

The Spaniard said: "He understands the water very well, like how Brazilian football players do magic with the ball.

"He has to be consistent from now and he has to work hard for the next eight years to maintain himself and get even better."

Schooling's next - and final individual - race at this meet is the 50m butterfly today, an event which he is heavily tipped to win.

After all, his personal best of 23.43sec, clocked at the Commonwealth Games, is also Asia's best time.

Said the University of Texas freshman: "Hopefully, (I can set) a new national record. If I break the national record, I'd break the Asian record. That's pretty sick to think about."

"I'm more relaxed right now, got the first gold medal out of the way. I feel like anything after this will be a huge bonus so I'm just going to go out and have some fun," added Schooling, who also bagged a bronze in the 200m butterfly on Sunday.

Compatriot Quah Ting Wen was the other Singaporean in action last night.

She finished sixth in the 200m butterfly with a time of 2:14.26.

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