10 July 2019
It was a cloudy and humid Wednesday, yet it was scorching 33 degrees Celsius temperature. The largest aquatic center in Singapore was quite lively at 4 pm, with more than half a dozen swimmers practicing in the pool, coaches busily providing instructions and recording the athletes' times. Waves and splashes in the pool were so tempting that even we wanted to jump in due to the humidity and heat. We were walking to the interview room when we first met him. It was the one and only Joseph Isaac Schooling. Wearing a light blue T-shirt, dark grey shorts and a friendly smile, he welcomed us warmly and let us know that he'd be with us shortly.
Joseph was only 21 years old when he brought home the 1st gold medal ever in Swimming for Singapore in the Olympic Games Rio 2016. Certainly most would know him as the swimmer that beat his own childhood hero, the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, Michael Phelps. Glancing at the list of questions while waiting for him to meet with us, a feeling of wonder and curiosity came over us about how he dealt with success from such a young age.
It was 10 minutes later when he entered the interview room. Busy as he has been, it was easy to see that he was happy to be home. After staying for years in Texas to study and train, Joseph had finally made his way home―this time for good. When asked what he liked most about being home, he was quick to reply: "Home cooked Chai Tow Kway!" he smiled.
As Joe, what his friends and family call him, talks, he paused to tell us his view of the Olympic Games.
"[Being in the] Olympic Games is [the] pinnacle of every athlete's hopes and dreams. To me those are the perfect words to say it. It is the top, the pinnacle of what we all strive to do."
"[Winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games had always been] my lifelong dream." he said. Not only did he manage to achieve his impossible dream in 2016, he also set a new Olympic Games record for the 100-meter butterfly at 50.39 seconds, an astounding 0.75 seconds ahead of Phelps.
Of course, these days most of us know him for his achievements, including his collection of medals from the World Swimming Championships, Asian Games and the South East Asian Games. Winning the Olympic gold medal also brought him other national honors, such as the honorary Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal), a medal awarded to person who has made an exceptional contribution to Singapore. An orchid was even named in his honor―"the Dendrobium Joseph Schooling".
But behind all the glitz and glamour of his fame, unbeknownst to some is a story that shows the hardships and challenges he faced. Joseph started swimming from 4; at 13, he moved to Florida to train with world-class coach Sergio Lopez. The training was far from home and family, forcing him to stand on his own two feet and make huge decisions about his life and future. Unlike his peers, he had to sacrifice things that others took for granted.
"I had [an] 'abnormal' childhood," said Schooling, laughing. "Going out with friends [or] stay[ing] at [a] friend's home...were things I couldn't do due to training. Of course, there were times I wished I could do something else, but overall in hindsight I have no regrets. It shaped me to be the person I am today," he recalled.
Sacrificing for things you don't love doing can be very difficult, so we thought he must love swimming. His response surprised us.
"You know, I was not always into swimming," he said, smiling. "If I wasn't a swimmer, I would be a golfer. I started both (swimming and golf) at around the same time and by the age of 4-5 years old I had to choose between swimming and golf." So we had to ask what made him choose swimming over golfing.
"The reason I choose swimming is because you can always come back to golf at later age; swimming has more thresholds on how long you will be able to do it."
"Mom and dad are very hands on. But, at the same time, they gave me space to make my own decision[s], even from [a] very young age. They would guide me, but they never told me [to] do this and that. They let me make my own decision and I think that help[ed] me mature even faster. They were behind me 100%" Joseph praised his parents for their support.
Seeing Joe praise his parents and hearing this response, he has earned our profound respect. Clearly these decisions have made him to be the person he is now, one that carefully prepares and makes life-changing decisions. One of those decisions? Choosing to continue his formal education.
Schooling juggled his limited time between swimming and education, studying Economics at the University of Texas from 2014, graduating successfully four years later in December 2018.
"It was very tough!" he exclaimed. "I never thought I would make it to this point."
It was hard to believe that he would have these types of thoughts, having done as much as he already has. He continued:
"It's definitely hard balancing swimming and school. You have [to be at] the morning practice, [then, attend] classes basically the whole morning, grab a quick lunch, and then [go to] practice again from one to five in the afternoon. After that, you have to go back and do the homework, eat dinner, [sleep], and start the whole day again. It was like [that] for years and years," he explained, trying to help us see ourselves in his daily routine.
"School takes at least 30% away from your sporting ability," he added, stating that he felt he could optimize his time more after graduation.
For most athletes, earning even a single Olympic medal is a top achievement; of course, gold is the ultimate goal of all their preparation and hard work. Having already achieved this, we asked what his next goal might be, other than defending his title in Tokyo 2020. He responded:
"After accomplishing my life-long dream, it took me a while to digest [that it really did happen], resituate [myself], and find the motivation for what's next. Right now, my next target is breaking the world record, getting (the) best time. That will be the next step for my career."
With his university degree in hand, Joseph may feel relief; he can now fully focus on his target to break the world record.
"I am excited that I have no distraction right now, everything is focused on swimming. No school, nothing to bother me," he emphasizes. "I am thrilled to see how good [the time] can get in the next 17-18 months. I am ready for it! It's going to be fun!" Joseph said, brimming with heartfelt enthusiasm.
It is not uncommon to hear about the struggles that an athlete faces when it comes to splitting time between school and sports. However, hearing about the struggle directly from a person who has successfully found the balance and performed at the highest level of international competition is an entirely different thing. The boy who left home at 13 has grown into a man that carefully considers and determines his own path in life, and we see that he is eager to conquer his next challenge with the same determination.
Since 2018, Joseph has been working with Toyota to promote road safety. It was curious to think about how a swimmer and a mobility company can collaborate.
"[Toyota] and I have the same mindset. I am an athlete [who aims for the top position]. Toyota knows what it takes to get to the top. It is almost like perfect fit," said Joseph as he recounted his encounter and interest in collaborating with Toyota. From the beginning, he was hoping to find a partner that would understand his needs.
"There is this understanding that I am an athlete, not an actor, not a singer. It's completely different. You need to understand the time-consuming practices, the need to rest, and [other considerations] to help the athlete perform at his very best. I am fortunate that Toyota is very understanding."
"The most important thing is [that Toyota] believes in me, gives me the opportunity to go practice every day and work hard. When somebody supports you that much, you don't want to disappoint [them]; [instead], you use it to further fuel you, to motivate you to do better," he explained.
Seeing the shared values he has with Toyota, it was easy for him to take on and support Toyota's mantra of Mobility for All. "[Being mobile] is one of the best freedoms in the world. For me it is one of the most important freedoms. Having the ability to be all over the place [is critical]."
His shared vision for the freedom of movement turned out to be one of the reasons he decided to get behind a campaign for road safety, which is part of Toyota's Start Your Impossible initiative. This is a project that means a lot to him and a project he has been involved in since September 2018.
To Joseph, being mobile and able to move from one place to another is very important, but it is more important to do it safely. "Being safe in the road is the most important thing for me. I mean, your life can change in split second, a lot of things can change [if you are in an accident]," he explained, letting us know how seriously he is taking his assignment.
He added, "I am not a huge risk taker to start with. I cannot be, [as I need to avoid] injuries and things like that. All I can do is play my part, be the best role model I can. [I need to] set an example and try to teach others [about road safety awareness and behavior]."
While reminding us of road safety awareness and behavior, Joseph explained to us how he drove to today's practice and interview in his Toyota RAV4. He reassured us that he will continue to try his best to further increase road safety awareness.