Joseph Schooling: The boy who beat his Olympic idol Michael Phelps

It’s not easy toppling one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time. Especially when that athlete is Olympic legend Michael Phelps. However, in the 100m butterfly final at Rio 2016, Phelps was left trailing in the wake of 21-year-old Singaporean star Joseph Schooling, who set an Olympic record to beat his idol and win his country’s first ever gold medal. Joseph’s parents - Colin and May - sacrificed everything to help their son achieve the summit of his sport. They talk to Yahoo News Singapore about how they learned to help their son become an Olympic champion.

Colin Schooling took out a sports sling bag, rifled through the contents and then held up an old, nondescript pair of goggles with a beaming smile.

“Look at this”, he said, almost with an air of pride, as he pointed at the bright-yellow rubber strap. “I made this strap personally for Jo when he was just five or six years old. It needed no adjustment, I measured it so that the goggles fitted perfectly around his head”.

Why? “So he could focus on his swimming and not waste his time fiddling with the goggles. Anything I could do to let him swim better, I did it”.

Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling (L) poses with his father Colin and mother May after his arrival from Rio 2016 Olympic Games on August 15, 2016 at Changi International airport in Singapore.
Singapore homegrown swimming hero Joseph Schooling beat US legend Michael Phelps in the 100m butterfly in Rio to win the tiny republic's first ever Olympic gold. / AFP / ROSLAN RAHMAN        (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Joseph with his father, Colin, and mother, May, as he arrives back in Singapore after winning gold in 2016. ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

He would take out more goggles and paddles from the bag, all with the same yellow-coloured straps fitted on them. During the hour-long chat with Yahoo News Singapore, the 73-year-old would also bring out a thick file containing results and lap times of all the races a young Joseph Schooling had taken part in - some of them neatly handwritten, others painstakingly obtained from tournament organisers.

Anything to let his only son pursue - and eventually succeed - in winning an Olympic swimming gold.

Sacrifices came naturally right from the start

The story of Joseph Schooling is one which even non-sports fans in Singapore are familiar with. The young boy with a burning ambition to win in swimming, who battled homesickness to train in the United States; who steadily won races in his powerful butterfly strokes from the SEA Games to the Asian and Commonwealth Games; and who finally clinched Singapore’s first and only Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The story of Joseph’s parents, Colin and May, is one told less frequently. Some may have a cursory idea of how the Schoolings were immensely supportive of Joseph’s ambition.

But one look at their charming office space in Parkway Parade - crammed with photos, medals and awards that Joseph has accumulated in his swimming career since a young age - is enough to understand just how much effort Colin and May had to put in for more than a decade to keep their son’s dream alive.

From Colin’s customised goggles and compilation of results, to May’s regular trips to the US to keep Joseph company, the parents smiled and shrugged off their sacrifices as something that came naturally for them.

Joseph's parents, Colin and May Schooling, speaking to Yahoo Sports Singapore.
Joseph's parents, Colin and May Schooling, speaking to Yahoo Sports Singapore.

“When he was just six years old, Jo would wake me up at 4.30 a.m., wanting me to take him to his swimming sessions”, Colin recalled. “One day I said to him after one of the sessions, ‘You just take care of your expectations and I’ll take care of your aspirations’ ”.

“It has been a rollercoaster ride. We made sacrifices, but it has been an enjoyable journey”, said 66-year-old May, before Colin chipped in, “But we wouldn’t want to go through it again”.

Initial plunge was nerve-racking

Indeed, the initial plunge into supporting Joseph’s dreams was nerve-racking. After all, no Singaporean had ever won gold at the Olympics ever since the tiny city state first sent athletes as a separate British Crown Colony to the 1948 London Games.

PALEMBANG, SUMATRA, INDONESIA - NOVEMBER 12:  Joseph Schooling of Singapore celebrates winning the Mens 50m Butterfly Final on day two of the 2011 Southeast Asian Games at Jakabaring Sports Complex on November 12, 2011 in Palembang, Sumatra, Indonesia.  (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
Joseph Schooling celebrates winning the Mens 50m Butterfly Final at the 2011 Southeast Asian Games. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The closest that Singaporeans had come to winning gold was in 1960, when Tan Howe Liang won a weightlifting silver in the men’s lightweight division, and in 2008, when the women’s table tennis team also claimed silver after losing to China in the final.

So while both Colin and May had strong sporting backgrounds - Colin was a multi-sports player who represented Singapore in softball, and May used to play tennis for the Malaysian state of Perak - there was no reference point, no recent example for Singaporean parents to support a gold-winning Olympian.

How far should they go? How much should they spend? Those questions swirled around Colin and May as they sought advice from the swimming fraternity.

“I did my own research of parents of gold medallists from other top swimming nations, but whenever top foreign coaches come to Singapore, I would find the time to meet them and pick their brains”, Colin said.

“They would give advice and recommendations on which schools to attend, which coaches to join. It all involved going overseas to live and train, so we realised early on that it was a sacrifice we had to make.

“But Joseph was determined. From a young age, he was like that. And so we didn’t have many doubts either”.

Guiding their son all the way to the US

They were heartened by their son’s conviction, ever since Joseph was enthralled at a young age by the exploits of his grand-uncle Lloyd Valberg - the very first Singaporean Olympian in 1948, finishing 14th in the high jump event - whenever Colin’s extended family met up.

May recalls that her son had a natural affinity with water and would take every chance to swim in the pool. Joseph also grew a big appetite for winning and would take on kids in older age groups with regularity.

“Jo hated to lose, but when he lost, we left him alone. We never scolded him; we were athletes ourselves, so we knew the pain of defeat”, she said.

“We said we would check him only if he threw a tantrum after losing, but I don’t recall him ever doing that. He would quietly go away and analyse where he came up short and make his own improvements”.

And with every race the young Joseph won, Colin and May were convinced that their son could attain his goal with proper coaching and nurturing.

Together, the family looked around for schools with top-level swim coaching for budding youngsters and settled on the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, whose swim team was helmed by Olympic medallist Sergio Lopez.

From the comforts of home to being alone in unfamiliar surroundings was tough for the teenage Joseph, even though he knew he was on the right track to pursue his ambition. It was equally tough for his parents: not only did they have to fork out much of their savings, even selling off some of their investments, but they also had to put their lifestyles on hold to take care of their son’s well-being from afar.

Sometimes they would visit him in Jacksonville; sometimes they would do long-distance calls. May recalls an occasion when Joseph spoke on the phone about feeling homesick and being torn between coming home and pressing on.

“Jo and I always discussed the pros and cons calmly”, she said. “And at the end of our discussion, I always said, ‘The final decision is yours’. I never insisted he must do this or do that, so he could be in charge of his life even before he became an adult”.

“Yes, my husband and I put in a lot of our time and effort, but we don’t impose ourselves on him. He has to be responsible for his own life choices. I think it’s crucial to let Jo know that, whether he wins or loses, it is in his hands. He has to take charge of himself.”

Support made it a million times easier: Joseph Schooling

It is a responsibility which Joseph eventually took on board well as he began to win medals on the regional and international stage. As universities in the US took notice and tried to recruit him, he made the choice to join renowned coach Eddie Reese at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014.

That choice proved inspired, as Joseph progressed in leaps and bounds under Reese, culminating in that glorious day in Rio when he challenged - and beat - Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete in history and the man Schooling had idolised as a child.

It was a surreal moment for Schooling, whose family has a picture of their own prodigiously talented son with Phelps when the U.S. team trained in Singapore before the 2008 Olympics - the Games where the US legend famously won a record eight gold medals in the pinnacle of his career.

A young Joseph Schooling with Michael Phelps - eight years before pipping him to Olympic glory. (Credit: The Schooling Family)
A young Joseph Schooling with Michael Phelps - eight years before pipping him to Olympic glory. (Credit: The Schooling Family)

Moments after defeating his now-rival, Schooling paid tribute to the man whose inspiration helped set him on the right course. "If it wasn’t for Michael, I don’t think I could have gotten to this point. I wanted to be like him as a kid," he said at the time. “I wanted to win. And I think a lot of this is because of Michael, he’s the reason I wanted to be a better swimmer.”

Ambition achieved, as he prepares to defend his gold at the Tokyo Olympics and eventually move on to the next stages of his life, Joseph is clear on one thing: if not for his parents, he would not have that Olympic medal and would already be doing something very different today.

“Standing on the podium, it meant the world to me to share something this big with them and I know it means the world to them as well, which makes this whole situation beautiful”, the 25-year-old told Yahoo News Singapore in an email interview from his current training base in Virginia.

TOPSHOT - Singapore's Joseph Schooling poses with his gold medal on the podium of the Men's 100m Butterfly Final during the swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 12, 2016.   / AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS        (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)
Golden day: Joseph Schooling poses with his medal on the podium of the Men's 100m Butterfly Final during the swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo by: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

“To do something substantial and seemingly tough, their support undoubtedly made it a million times easier.

“My dad came more from the side of tough love and he knew that I had it in me, and whenever I was complaining or whining, it was usually met with more of a strong push. My mother would be more nurturing, giving me hugs and saying that ‘It’s okay, as long as you had fun’, you know?

“They complement each other in their own ways of encouraging me and keeping me on track to meet my goals”.

Sweet aftertaste of a rollercoaster journey

Colin and May can now enjoy the sweet aftertaste of their rollercoaster journey with Joseph to his extraordinary Olympic triumph. What advice can they give to other parents whose children are also dreaming of Olympic glory?

Colin believes in participating wholeheartedly with the ambitions of one’s children. “If you love your children unconditionally, you make sure they have passion in what they do and then you indulge yourselves in that passion with them”, he said.

May, on the other hand, cautioned, “It must be the kids who want to go for Olympic glory, not the parents. Otherwise the parents will push the kids to a point when they’ll just give up.

“You support your kid; you don’t live your dream through your kid. You must be sincere with yourselves”.