SINGAPORE — Let’s get the simple question out of the way first. Can Joseph Schooling bounce back from his hugely disappointing Fina World Swimming Championships outing?
Yes, without a doubt. This is a mature adult who does not mope and feel sorry about bad results, a role model who would not blame anyone for his poor form, and an exemplary athlete who makes use of every setback to fuel his desire to improve.
Now, the tough questions. What should he do to bounce back? Can he win gold again at next year’s Tokyo Olympics?
Here’s where there is plenty of uncertainty, because Schooling has never faced a monumental challenge in his wildly successful career such as the one he is facing right now.
Since he burst onto the public consciousness at the 2011 SEA Games, his career trajectory has always been on the rise. A couple of slight road bumps – such as his 2012 London Olympics outing in which he swam poorly after officials disallowed the use of his swim cap and goggles – were to be expected, and he has cleared those obstacles without much fuss.
And so his current predicament is unprecedented – facing a seemingly unconquerable target in American swim star Caeleb Dressel, tweaking his physique and swim style to no avail, and struggling in adapting to a new lifestyle in Singapore after completing college.
Worryingly, his 52.93-second timing in Friday’s (26 July) 100m butterfly heats at the World Championships is dreadful by his lofty standards (50.39sec when he won his 2016 Olympic gold, 51.08sec when he clinched gold at last year’s Asian Games).
One year is long enough for him to arrest his current slump in form. Whether he can bounce back strong enough to catch up with Dressel is what’s making this one-year time limit seem so insufficient.
The inevitability of Caeleb Dressel
Realistically, it seems that Dressel’s moment has arrived.
The 22-year-old – who swept to seven golds in the 2017 World Championships and already has clinched six so far in this year’s edition – swims with the inevitability of winning his races, much like how his compatriot Michael Phelps used to be a decade ago.
He has already lowered the 100m fly world record to 49.50sec, and to Schooling and the rest of the pack, he may already seem uncatchable.
So can Schooling win gold again in Tokyo? The best answer I can think of is: the signs are not good.
But Olympic gold has always been elusive for Singapore. And in retrospect, Schooling probably caught lightning in a bottle when he held off three swim greats – Phelps, South Africa’s Chad le Clos and Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh – for his country’s only gold in 68 years of participation.
Silver and bronze, however, are tantalisingly within his capabilities. In Saturday’s 100m fly final won by Dressel in 49.66sec, second-placed Russian Andrei Minakov clocked 50.83sec, while third-placed le Clos timed 51.16sec.
Both silver- and bronze-medal timings are well within Schooling’s reach – provided he is in peak form.
Adjusting to new physique, lifestyle
Getting to that peak form within a year will not be easy, considering the slump he is in right now.
When I spoke to him at last November’s Fina World Cup series in Singapore, he said he was eager to make himself leaner and, in theory, faster if he does not lose the stroke power he possesses after bulking himself up under his previous coach Eddie Reese.
It is safe to say that the tweak in physique is easier said than done. Factor in his major lifestyle changes – returning to Singapore after graduating from college in February, and becoming a professional swimmer in March – and it is also safe to say that he has struggled to adjust to his new reality.
But top athletes find their way out of slumps eventually, and while the clock is ticking towards Schooling’s moment of reckoning in Tokyo, he may have just received a blessing in disguise in Friday’s massive disappointment.
Nothing lights the flames of desire in Schooling like a poor result, and Friday’s elimination from his pet event could serve as the major motivation he needs to put in more training hours, shave off a few more kilograms, and push himself harder than before.
More crucially, it should finally put him in full focus of his gold-medal defence. After winning gold – and beating his childhood idol Phelps in the process – he has certainly given some of his time and attention to life outside his sport.
And why not? He has fulfilled his sporting dream of winning Olympic gold, and it can be tough to find another motivation to keep clocking hundreds of laps during those early-morning training sessions.
Many top athletes, especially swimmers, have had difficulties doing so. Phelps struggled with depression after achieving so much in the pool, as had Australia swim star Libby Trickett after she won two golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
So this World Championships setback, if Schooling handles it properly, can become the perfect tonic to snap him out of his funk, and set his mind to proving doubters wrong.
Snide remarks on social media
And there are already many doubters. Social media is filled with snide trolling remarks that Schooling has lost his drive and ability for winning gold. Some vicious online trolls called for him to serve his deferred national service.
All laughable comments, because it is too premature to write off Schooling, even though he is in the midst of his most crushing disappointment. Not just because he has shown his ability to bounce back from setbacks before, and not just because all these negative comments would serve instead as inspiration for him to shut his detractors up.
No, it is too premature because he is still deserving of our support.
Let’s not forget, here is a Singaporean athlete who has given the country its biggest sporting moment, and has carried himself as a model sportsman in every sense. His golden Olympic achievement, a mere three years ago, should still give him some sort of “amnesty” to derision.
“I will come back a new swimmer,” Schooling vowed after his elimination from the World Championships. In his time of struggle, the least we can do is to still believe him.
The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 16 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.