It was in a corner of a restaurant in Australia that the idea of competing on the world’s biggest stage was planted in young Joseph Schooling’s mind.
Then around six years old, he had a conversation with grand-uncle Lloyd Valberg. Valberg, a former high jumper, was Singapore’s first ever Olympian at the 1948 London Games.
During the journey home afterward, the young Schooling suddenly turned to his father and simply said, “I want to go to the Olympics.”
Those words were uttered in Mandurah, a city known for its spectacular waterways. Perhaps it is apt that the Schooling of now is a spectacular sight himself in waters of a different kind.
On Friday morning, Singapore time, the 21-year-old became the first ever Singaporean male swimmer to qualify for an Olympic final when he sealed a berth in the 100-metre butterfly event in Rio de Janeiro. He clocked 50.83, a new national record and Asian record, and finished first in his semi-final.
“My uncle must have whispered something to him,” Colin Schooling recalled to Yahoo Singapore. “From then on, Joseph was just engrossed in going to the Olympic Games.”
He had already begun swimming by then, though it was “nothing serious” even though he won several gold medals at the age of five during his first competition.
Grooming a world-class athlete
But that changed during one holiday in Ipoh, Malaysia when the senior Schooling awoke one night to a tugging of his arm.
“I asked, ‘Joseph, what are you doing here?’ and he says ‘I’ve got to go for training.’”, he chuckled
“I realized [then] that this is a special boy; which seven or eight-year-old boy wakes you in the morning at 4.30am to ask that? From that day, I took my son seriously.”
Colin and his wife, May, decided to groom their only son to the best of their ability, going so far as to ensure he had access to swimming facilities to train during every vacation they took during his childhood. This would continue into his formative years, when Joseph was sent first to the famed Bolles School in United States to train under renowned coach Sergio Lopez and now the University of Texas to continue his development at the best possible environment. University of Texas swim coach Eddie Reese coached the US Olympic swim teams in 2004 and 2008, and has said he has never seen a talent like Joseph in all his years as a coach. Reese also said he would be a "threat" in Rio.
It wasn’t about winning at all costs either. “May and me wanted to make sure we groomed a young man who respects his elders, has manners and respects his competitors, but never fears them,” Colin added.
The 68-year-old businessman insisted he never placed any expectations on his son from the start and still didn’t have any when a 17-year-old Joseph qualified in two events for his first Olympics four years ago in London.
It was “all about exposure” then, though Colin to this day remains rankled by the last-minute scramble for a replacement swim cap and goggles that happened just before Joseph’s 200-metre butterfly heat. He ended up failing to qualify for the semi-finals of the event and also for the 100m butterfly three days later.
A daily reminder
Four years on, Schooling has gone from teenage prodigy to a genuine world-class performer who has acknowledged that London showed him he was not as ready as he thought he was, but that circumstances are entirely different in Brazil now.
A handmade sign has hung on an archway in the swimmer’s apartment in Austin for the past year. On it, the phrase “Remember Why You're Here” runs across the bottom in red, bold and capitalised letters. Above it, the numbers 50.1 and 1:52 flank an image of the Singapore flag and the Rio 2016 logo.
“Those are the times he has to do at the Olympics to [finish on the] podium,” Colin explained. “So he reminds himself day in and day out; before he sleeps and before he gets up, he looks at it as a constant reminder of his journey.
“There is no time for self-doubt. I always tell him: ‘You must believe in yourself, because we believe in you’.”
A 50.1-second swim will almost certainly be good enough for gold on Saturday morning in the 100m butterfly, his final race of this Olympics. Earlier in his heat, Joseph touched home first ahead of childhood idol and arguably one of the greatest swimmers of all time, Michael Phelps.
Mother May will watch from the stands, while Colin will likely join friends for a small gathering to watch his son race on Saturday.
“It has just been a fantastic ride,” said Colin, a Catholic. “What is in store for Joseph, I don’t know. I hope it’s good. If the good Lord can spoil him with some gifts, it’d be nice – he’s worked very hard for it anyway.”
He had a taste of his son's success in August last year when Joseph won bronze at the world championships, the Republic’s first-ever medal in the competition’s history, in Kazan, Russia. Colin still remembers the moment. He and May hugged each other as they witnessed the moment on TV, and said, “My goodness, what a journey.”
“He called me later and we were just happy,” Colin said. “I said: ‘Finally, the world will take notice of you, of Singapore’.”
Come Saturday 9.12am (Singapore time), a nation waits with bated breath to see what a young man will do with his childhood Olympic ambitions.