Singapore owes Joseph Schooling so much more than lame LinkedIn posts - he has taken away all excuses

Swimmer’s greatest achievement was to defeat nation’s kiasuism, taking away the parent’s "cannot" and turned it into a child’s "can"

Joseph Schooling gives the thumbs up to Singapore residents during his victory parade after winning an Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
Joseph Schooling gives the thumbs up to Singapore residents during his victory parade after winning an Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. (PHOTO: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

IF THE mark of a man is measured in LinkedIn posts, then Joseph Schooling really stands alone. Within hours of his retirement announcement, the Singaporean was rewarded with the rarest kind of self-help fluff that must have made those thousands of hours in the pool totally worth it.

Some say it with flowers. Singaporeans like to say it with god-awful LinkedIn posts that never fail to shoehorn their business opportunities into their Schooling accolades. Apparently, retirement is not retirement anymore. It’s the selection of a different path. And if you are also contemplating a different path, then feel free to get in touch to explore your career opportunities. You, too, could be the next Joseph Schooling.

Everyone’s at it, penning one open letter after another to Singapore’s only Olympic champion. So here’s my bandwagon-jumping effort …

“Dear Joseph,

For God’s sake, man, don’t open LinkedIn. Or any social media post that has a stirring black and white photo of yourself achieving something that none of these inspirational posters came close to replicating in a sporting arena, because their jittery parents made them drop all forms of sporting activity after shaky PSLE results. Don’t read anything that includes the words ‘Schooling’, ‘life lessons’, ‘new paths’, ‘new beginnings’ or indeed anything that features the kind of ‘inspirational’ dialogue usually found at the end of a Netflix Christmas movie.”

Because they don’t know what they’re talking about. None of them. Because they never made the kind of sacrifices, individually or collectively as a supportive family, that are required to transform Michael Phelps from a childhood hero on a bedroom wall into a vanquished opponent in an Olympic pool.

Remarkable act of national service

I don’t know what I’m talking about either, because there is no frame of reference in a 25-year career writing about Singapore’s failures and near misses at the sporting pinnacle, other than the unexpected shock of wiping away tears when a Singaporean - a Singaporean! – touched the pool first in the men's 100m butterfly final at Rio 2016.

Because none of us had previously witnessed – or been responsible for - such a remarkable act of national service in a single moment, a nation-building achievement worth a million basic military training exercises, a controversial claim only because it is not a claim to anyone who remembers where they were when Schooling stood at the top of the podium, watching a Singapore flag-raising ceremony like no other.

Because it had never been done before. And it shouldn't have been done in 2016 either. History, physicality and physiology worked against Schooling, who dared to walk among giants, genetic freaks blessed with aquatic gifts beyond the smaller Singaporean. But he defied logic anyway. He defied common sense.

He defied our own eyes, for heaven’s sake. As he loosened up alongside Phelps, Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh, he looked for all the world like a kid brother tagging along with the big boys at a college party. He was going to be denied entry, surely. Flexing those monstrous pecs and smiling that infectious smile were never going to be enough. He’d be discovered for what he really was, out of his depth, out of their league and out of touch with our collective reality as imposter syndrome inevitably intervened. He was Singaporean. And Singaporeans were never invited to these kinds of private parties.

But he didn’t wait for an invitation. He smashed the door down. He showed a pathway for others to follow, which is now leading us dangerously towards a LinkedIn post. So let’s pull back the reins of hyperbole, with a shuddering jolt, to remind ourselves that no one else has followed, not yet anyway, and take a brief, sobering look at what happened next.

Hypocrisy amid spate of LinkedIn posts

When the euphoria died down, tall poppy syndrome popped up in the ugliest places, like the most stubborn of weeds. Why couldn’t Schooling make the magic happen more than once? Why couldn’t he be No.1 every year? Why couldn't we just do with Schooling what we do with Changi Airport? Pump more money into something successful so it stays successful, which misses the points made above.

Anyone with a passing interest in elite swimming, or professional sport, or perhaps even the human body, knew that Schooling’s first gold medal was a miracle and miracles only happen once. The clue is in the title. But keyboard warriors knew better. Schooling couldn’t make it anymore. Typical Singaporean.

And that’s the biggest hypocrisy, a lame observation to outdo the lamest of LinkedIn posts. Because Schooling isn’t a typical Singaporean. Nor were his parents. They didn’t see a career path or a financial opening. They saw a boyhood dream and sold the family home to realise it. They were blessed with a kid with a voracious appetite for winning so they satisfied his daily cravings until he had an Olympic gold medal around his neck.

Such behaviour is many, many wonderful things, but it is not typically Singaporean. How could it be? It had never happened before and hasn't happened since, which is hardly surprising. Being typically Singaporean is to sell off Turf City and see not the loss of a sports hub (a real one), but the property investment opportunities. Being typically Singaporean is to complain to the local council about the noise of kids’ football matches. Being typically Singaporean is to hear the news of Schooling’s retirement and throw up nonsensical LinkedIn posts.

And why are they nonsensical? Because Schooling doesn’t need to obsess over career goals and pathways. He’s done enough. He owes Singapore nothing. If there is a debt to be paid, it’s the other way round. Singapore owes Schooling for achieving something even greater than Olympic gold. He took away our excuses. He took away the parent’s "cannot" and turned it into a child’s "can". With one historic swim, he defeated the United States’ Michael Phelps and Singapore’s kiasuism.

There really is nothing else to say except "thank you" and steal from the greatest sports movie to celebrate our greatest sporting achievement.

Yo, Schooling, you did it.

Singapore owes Schooling for achieving something even greater than Olympic gold. He took away our excuses. He took away the parent’s "cannot" and turned it into a child’s "can".

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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