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Schooling thrives best under pressure


IN a year when there is so much at stake for Singapore's swim star Joseph Schooling, it is reassuring to hear him say that he thrives under pressure and that it motivates him to push himself even harder.

After his Rio Olympics gold-medal triumph last August, the 21-year-old hunter is now the hunted, globally.

The good thing is that the University of Texas student knows the score, and is preparing himself well for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 swimming championships in Indiana from March 22 to 25.

These championships will be the launchpad from which he torpedoes into the World Swimming Championships in Budapest in July and the South-east Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur in August.

Because of how, in the space of 50.39 seconds in Rio, he stamped his arrival as the world's best butterfly sprinter, his name will be the one on everyone's lips - and on his main rivals' radar.

In a reflective mood, he said on Wednesday: "It's hard to reach the top, but it's even harder to remain at the top. For me, I am thankful to the people around me, my mum (May) and dad (Colin), and my support system.

"They play a very crucial role in making sure that all the details are looked into and to make things easy for me to concentrate and focus on training and competing.

"I am happy with my form right now. I am feeling fitter and better than I was at the Olympics."

The competitive streak in Schooling's DNA did not come overnight. It was evident even from the time he was under club coach Vincent Poon at the Tanah Merah Country Club (TMCC); back then, he had to beat swimmers of his age group (seven and above) who were given a 10-metre headstart in the sprints.

At the time, the precocious water wonder would show frustration at losing to his peers. With grit and determination, the boy would get back in the pool and make good on the defeat within days.

I have known Schooling from when he was seven; even then, he was already swiping silverware offered by TMCC at its swimming carnivals.

There was one occasion when, after reading my rave reports about him in the club magazine, he approached me and floored me with one telling question: "Uncle, I have read the magazine reports, but when are you going to write about me in the newspaper?"

When I replied that I would do so when he racked up bigger successes, he accepted the response as just another challenge to be taken up.

By strange coincidence, two Fridays ago, I heard contrasting stories about Schooling and another top local sportsman; both share similar credentials, but are very different in their sporting attitudes.

Choo Tze Huang, who turned to professional golf after graduating from the University of Washington, was also a NCAA champion.

While playing golf with three leading corporate figures at Keppel Club three years ago, he threw away the game at the last hole, just to ensure that he lost the three-against-one social game.

The gracious trio did not let him pay for the lunch bet though.

That same night, I heard a story about how Schooling - specially flown back from Texas for a Singapore Swimming Association fund-raising golf event last November - played his heart out during his round at the TMCC Garden course.

At the end of the event, he went up the stage twice to collect his prizes for being the champion with 39 stableford points and for hitting the longest drive of 261 metres.

No quarter given. None taken either.

Both approaches are to be admired. Choo presents a nice-guy image for whom beating "uncles" in a social golf game is not in his persona.

Schooling, on the other hand, showcases a never-say-die attitude; defeat is not in his vocabulary - even in a friendly game.

His dad, himself a tireless fighter in the sporting arena, should know. He has seen this attitude even when he plays golf "socials" with his son - always.