In 2016, Joseph Schooling bagged Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold medal for swimming at the Games in Rio de Janeiro. And with that win, he put the little red dot on the world stage. Why are we repeating this? That is because his performance at the Tokyo 2020 Games — while lacklustre — drew the ire of many critics. However, we all need to be reminded and be taken back to that glorious day in 2016, and not let Tokyo 2020 overshadow that memory.
In an interview with a local broadcaster just after the end of his race in Tokyo, Schooling said it was indeed not the end of his swimming career. In an interview with Options two years ago, the 26-year-old said his razor-sharp focus was on what he was doing and not what anyone else thought. He also said that certain people might want to give advice and “you just filter out the things that do not make sense. One person might actually be saying something right but it may not work for you. The way to handle it you got to think more, you have got to communicate more”.
At end-2021, Schooling addressed mental issues in another interview, an issue that is becoming more common among athletes, namely American gymnast Simone Biles and Japanese tennis sensation Naomi Osaka. Biles pulled out of selected events at the Tokyo Olympics citing mental health issues while Osaka, in the same year, withdrew from the French Open.
Schooling’s honest reply: “I have perfect hearing. Just because you can listen to one thing, and kind of filter out what’s good from what’s bad, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take energy to try filter out the negative stuff. It still might take your mind away from it. But at the end of the day, we don’t live in a perfect society. These are the obstacles we have to face. And these are the things that we as athletes have to adapt to.”
His mental and physical strength are reasons enough why Schooling has been TAG Heuer’s friend of the brand since 2018. Options talks to Schooling via video call on a variety of subjects, such as being a friend of TAG Heuer, his state of mind and dinner conversations with his family [this interview was done before Schooling’s father Colin sadly passed at the end of last year and before his enlistment to National Service].
What are your feelings about athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka coming out to speak openly about mental health?
To answer that question, you need to go back to what kind of background I was raised in. In Singapore, and all of us can attest to this, it’s more of ‘Okay, put aside your feelings and let’s get the job done first and then we can re-evaluate how we feel’. From a more Western point of view, they articulate their feelings a little better. I do believe that we all feel the same way. And now, going back to your question pertaining to Naomi and Simone, during the Olympics it was a huge shock — and not like a negative shock — but you just don’t expect things like that, especially from Simone.
But at the end of the day, I think it’s a good step in the right direction. It’s about time that people see athletes as human beings. Just because we stand on the podium, and there’s all this buzz and lights around us, it doesn’t mean that we don’t go through the same struggles. I really commend her [Biles] for being brave.
At the Olympics, she was supposed to win all the events, and for her to pull out in the midst of it and all the scrutiny that she got, it was not not an easy place to be and I certainly wouldn’t want to be in her shoes.
How do you deal with the pressures of competition?
It all goes back to preparation. I have learned that anxiety can be quelled through good, and substantial preparation. In essence, if internally, you know that you’re prepared, and you’re ready to go, I think that’s 90% of the battle won, the 10% is all about going through repetition, such as meditating [on] all the visualising that you’ve done, like preparing your mind for that. At the end of the day, if I am not mentally prepared, or I have not prepared sufficiently, that’s where I start to get a bit anxious, and I start questioning the work.
My way to combat that is day in and day out practice whenever I hit, like a barrier I think to myself — when I step up on those blocks at the big meets, I want to know that I’ve done everything possible. That in turn, is like a double whammy, in the sense I get to train harder. And at the end of the day, I know I’m amply prepared.
Tell us more about your collaboration with TAG Heuer, what made you say, ‘Okay, I’ll be the friend of the brand’?
I’ve always grown up with TAG Heuer watches and this was before I even looked at timepieces. We’ve always been a very TAG Heuer-oriented family. My first TAG Heuer watch was actually the first edition Formula One. My mum bought that for me when I was a kid. She’s kept it ever since and it still works. It’s still in mint condition.
When we bring watches into the boutique, we see different generations, maybe 10 or 15 years ago you didn’t see that. Growing up, I’ve always been a fan of the brand. I’ve always been a fan of their work. And as far as the company’s value standpoint, I think they want to be a disruption in the industry. And I think they are, I just saw them sign up with Portuguese professional footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and American football quarterback Tom Brady has done work with them. Those are some great faces with the brand. So automatically I want to be working with a company that has those values and also attracts those kinds of people.
What are some parts of TAG Heuer’s DNA that you share?
Besides disruption, TAG Heuer is a very sporty brand. The Aquaracer fits me. I do love the Carrera series as well. You know, and Formula One, right? We all love watching Formula One. It’s something that I grew up with too. A lot of the brand’s future orientation, and how they think it definitely aligns with my brand and how I go about my work every single day.
Growing up, what was the Schooling household like?
I grew up in a very strict household, strict but not to the point that my parents told me what to do. They guide me along the way. At the end of the day, I’ve always had the autonomy to make my own decisions.
As a kid, my mum would say, you sleep in the bed you made — that’s the exact mindset I was brought up on. I think my parents have given me a lot of opportunities that I would firmly say 99.9% of parents wouldn’t give their kids. What they did was something that to this day, I can’t really comprehend, because I don’t have a family yet. I haven’t actually been in their shoes, but just thinking about the financial sacrifice, the family sacrifice, even with this upbringing right now, I couldn’t say 100% I would do this for my kids. I’d have to be put in that spot. I’d be lying if I said yes. Because it’s a big decision. With that story told, I think you can tell that we’re all in whatever that we do. As long as we show that we have the drive to see this thing out, no matter how it turns out.
Give us a little insight into what dinner conversations are like.
Mum and Dad know I don’t like talking about swimming at the dinner table or just outside the pool in general. My modus operandi is I put in 110% when I’m at the pool, and decompress after because I really don’t fancy talking about swimming. Dinner conversations are about random things going on in the world. How was your day? What did you learn? These are the things that I can share. But it goes on to a completely different host of topics as well. Very personal topics. We go through the whole spectrum.
If you could turn back time, what would you do differently?
Can I say this instead: people who I wish I had met in certain time frames? I’ve been thinking about this actually. And my latest thought is, I wish I could have met [the late Prime Minister of Singapore] Lee Kuan Yew after 2016. I wish I had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk one-on-one about life, his views, how he was brought up, what he had to go through. I think I certainly believe that’s one of my biggest regrets. But I also understand that the timeline was not suitable, it’s all about timing.
As an Olympic gold medallist, what kind of mark do you hope to leave behind?
The message is this: There are seven and a half billion people on this planet. I don’t know how many Olympic champions there are, I’m pretty sure that percentage is 1,000th of 1%. Or maybe much bigger than that. My message to them is to just enjoy what you do, find something that truly makes you happy. Because in everything that we do in sports, especially, it’s all about the long run, it’s all about the big picture.
You can be gung-ho about it for one to two weeks, maybe a couple of months. But that initial passion is going to run out if you don’t actually enjoy what you’re doing, no matter how good you are. I say find something you’re good at, and pursue it to the best of your ability, you don’t have to be the best in the world. But you surely want to see what your boundaries are. It’s all about pushing boundaries.
It’s the same thing with TAG Heuer, right? We’re going back to what the brand stands for; they want to disrupt, they want to be first. That’s everything that I hope future athletes will embody. At least think about it, then after that open the door, and you never know what’s going to happen in the future. Just give yourself a shot.
Has retirement ever crossed your mind?
Yeah, it has. I have to serve two years of NS [National Service] first, and then come out, and get some experience in the working world through the banking industry. That’s one option. The other is taking over some of the companies that we’re starting right now, such as a swim school. These are all going to be things that will take up the bulk of my time, so I need to really pick and plan carefully.
I am an Economics major. Numbers and finance have always been my top interest. But at the same time, establishing relationships with people, such as conversing and interacting, are things that excite me. And these things go hand in hand with business, it will set me up well. Without swimming, I’ll have the time but most importantly, the energy to see all these things through. I am excited about that aspect. Building something different.
This article first appeared on Feb 14, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.