30 May 17 The Straits Times by CHUA SIANG YEE
Joseph Schooling may have scaled the pinnacle of swimming at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics but his inauguration as butterfly king was also when he felt furthest from the sport.
In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times, the Olympic 100m fly champion, who was in town for mixed martial arts outfit One Championship's Dynasty of Heroes event last Friday, admitted his post-Olympic hangover lasted a little longer than he would have liked.
"I found myself not wanting to swim. After you've accomplished your lifelong goal and dream it's very hard to find that motivation again to go another four years and then who knows what after," said Schooling, a student at the University of Texas at Austin.
"I just wanted to be a normal college kid. All my friends outside swimming were partying. I felt the first semester back in college was like a huge party.
"Waking up at 5am for morning practice sucks. It does, no one likes waking up for morning practice. Finding that motivation to push myself to get up and go to practice just wasn't there."
Party he did. He resisted his coach Eddie Reese's request for him to start training twice a day immediately.
He was spotted at events like the Ultimate Fighting Championship Fight Night in Houston in February and Formula One's Austin Grand Prix last October. He also returned to Singapore last November for a charity fund-raiser.
But, the 21-year-old said, it was not so much the junkets and frequent flying as it was the complacency which set him back. "Everything was on my mind except swimming," he conceded.
There was also the pressure that came with being an Olympic champion and starting every race with a target on his back.
Before the Olympics he was just a talented swimmer from Singapore. Now he is known as the guy who beat American legend Michael Phelps and every swim is scrutinised.
Schooling said: "The biggest difference between (the period) before the Olympics and after the Olympics would be that, I could kinda zone out of all the distractions, you know, you can kinda avoid it or ignore it but now the biggest thing is that you need to face them.
"You need to face criticism. You need to take it in your stride."
All these hurt him at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) swimming championships in March, where he failed to defend either of his 100- and 200-yard fly titles.
Seeing rival Caeleb Dressel celebrate wildly after pipping him to the 100-yard fly title at that meet wounded the fiercely competitive Schooling.
But that sobering experience, coming before July's swimming world championships in Budapest, was a timely wake-up call and Schooling vowed that there will be no repeat of a meek showing in Hungary.
He said: "I rediscovered the feeling of losing and how losers feel and I never want to feel that way again. That's unacceptable.
"Now that I've seen how people are when you don't perform or when you fall, that lights a huge fire under my belly."
Wagging his finger for emphasis, he added: "I have a new goal and it's to prove everyone wrong and shut them up.
"I'm going to swim to prove that I wasn't just a flash in the pan. I've been doing this for a long time.
"That's my goal right now. To do all that."
Fighting talk from a man who is far from willing to relinquish his throne just yet.