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Reporting from Tokyo
TOKYO — It was heartbreaking, wasn't it?
Beneath all the defiant slew of social media posts insisting that Joseph Schooling is still Singapore's Olympic champion and someone who still has the nation's support, everyone's heart must have been hurting at the sight of a once-confident and unbeatable winner being reduced to a crestfallen and bewildered former champion.
But that just goes to show how high the 26-year-old had lifted Singapore when he won the country its first and only Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro five years ago. We were given the privilege to brag that "our swimmer" was able to beat Michael Phelps, the most be-medalled Olympian of all time. How intoxicating that had felt.
When the inevitable comedown arrived with his stunning elimination from his pet 100m butterfly event at the Tokyo Olympics, the general sentiment (ignoring the usual online trolls) is less of disappointment, but more of comforting encouragement, like what Schooling's coach Sergio Lopez tried to do post-race.
It was an acknowledgement that what the young man had already accomplished was head-and-shoulders above anything Singapore sports had achieved pre- or post-independence. Schooling's legacy is secure despite this bitter defeat — he will be remembered forever as one of the greatest athletes of this nation.
Disconcerting to see such a rapid regression
But if we want to be honest about it, it was a little disconcerting to see such a steep and rapid regression of such an outstanding swimmer.
We would have hoped to see Schooling slowly fading from his peak - maybe finishing second or third in Tokyo, then perhaps out of the final in Paris 2024, before easing up on his swimming career while still piling up SEA Games medals for fun.
Instead, we got a shock when he finished last in his qualifying heat, with a timing (53.12 seconds) that is almost three seconds - a lifetime in competitive swimming - from his gold-winning Olympic-record time (50.39sec).
For those who take an interest in Schooling's fortunes only at the quadrennial Olympics, it must have seemed that he lost his brilliance overnight. And they might feel a deeper sense of shock and disappointment than those who have tracked his career since Rio.
But the warning signs were there. At the 2019 World Championships, Schooling had also finished last in his 100m fly heat, in a timing (52.93sec) not too far from his Tokyo result. Then came an underwhelming outing at the 2019 SEA Games, where he won just one individual gold medal – a far cry from the six individual golds he clinched in the 2015 edition.
Even as he vowed to deal with those setbacks, tried to change coaches and moved back to the United States to a bid to recapture his form, the timings did not pick up significantly. Nonetheless, those who had followed him since he was a teenage sensation at the 2011 SEA Games had hoped that his penchant for the big occasion could lift him to another great Olympic performance in Tokyo.
He couldn't this time. Can he ever scale the heights of Rio again?
Major rethink needed to revive career
Let's get the retirement question out of the way: there is no way Schooling is going to end his swimming career on this disappointing note.
Many have been saying that, if he quits now, it would not hurt his legacy one bit.
Also, he has already dedicated most of his 26 years of life to endless hours and countless lonely laps in the swimming pool. At his current age, many swimmers would have already been considering the next stage of their lives. It might be a good time to move on.
Schooling won't. Not after being stung by such an unsatisfactory Olympic outing. He would instead be motivated to push on for another Olympic cycle to try and put up a more positive conclusion.
But he needs a major rethink. The surest way of recapturing his best race times is to rid himself of all distractions, and re-dedicate his life to the single-minded pursuit of shaving off fractions of swim times.
It is a gruelling prospect and it could entail sacrificing a large chunk of his social life. Would he be willing to put himself through all the grunt work like he did when he was younger?
Certainly, if he does, there will be people ready to support him all the way. He could even tap on the advice of his idol Phelps, who also endured a relative slump – winning just four golds at the 2012 London Olympics after piling up eight at the 2008 Beijing Games – before reviving his career for one last hurrah in Rio.
He has made sound decisions all his life – thanks to the astute upbringing by his parents Colin and May. And his next career decision may be the most crucial one he has to make, as he steps into another uncharted water for a Singapore athlete – making a comeback on the toughest competitive stage that is the Olympics.
Will Schooling succeed? He has to try, if only to not let the Tokyo Games be the end point of his Olympic run. It will be an uphill battle, filled with people who will doubt him and derail his confidence.
But he has changed the narrative once already, proving wrong the cynical preconception that Singaporeans would never win an Olympic gold medal, especially in the ultra-competitive sport of swimming.
Now he needs to change the narrative for a second time. This time, it is not for Singapore sports, but for himself.
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