You don’t want to mess with the most important woman in Joseph Schooling’s life.
“If he says a foul word, I’ll slap him,” the outspoken lady said, dead serious.
May, who is in her 50s, put her tough, no-nonsense approach to good effect when she and Colin famously negotiated for their son’s long-term deferment from National Service (NS) in October this year.
It was a groundbreaking move that saw Joseph, currently studying and training at Bolles high school in the US, become the only Singaporean athlete to ever be permitted up to three years of undisturbed training.
The target for the 18-year-old is a historic Olympic medal for the country come 2016 in Brazil. With five individual national records and hugely-impressive butterfly timings that rank amongst the top in the world, Joseph is on track for greater heights – barring the obstacle that is NS, said May.
“So far, all our prominent swimmers have been girls,” argued the finance director at a trading company founded by herself and Colin. “Pat Chan, Junie Sng, Joscelin Yeo… where are the boys?”
Loyalty to country
Determined to not have their son’s progress derailed by NS, the Schoolings opened talks in 2010 with the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, as well as the Singapore National Olympic Council.
“They asked if he can serve six months (three months of basic and vocational training each) then go back to the States to train,” May revealed to Yahoo Singapore.
Her response? “You might as well forget it.”
“I told the MINDEF people very clearly: I’m trying to teach my son to be loyal to this country,” said May. “But why should he be loyal to a country that doesn’t even support him when he wants to achieve swimming success for (it)?”
“In fact, if you represent the country and make people stand for your flag, you’re doing ‘national service’,” she added.
But the real clincher, according to May, was the assistance that poured in from all corners of the globe.
“Top authorities in the world came in to help us and supply us with all the information we needed,” she said.
“For example, Gregg Troy, the men’s head coach at USA swimming then, and Bill Sweetenham, who was an advisor to the Singapore Sports Council, all wrote letters supporting Joseph.”
“They’re the ones who can see talent, and they say he will be world-class,” she added.
May, understandably proud of her son, joked that his deferment was approved because “they want to show (him) off at the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore, the year he’s supposed to be in NS.”
But she ultimately stressed that she and her husband were not looking for Joseph to escape a duty expected of all Singaporean men.
“He can come back and do (NS) when he finishes swimming,” said May. “It’s okay to get him into the pool of soldiers. Not a problem.”
She admitted, however, to initially anticipating backlash over Joseph’s deferment.
“I was worried it would have an adverse effect, with people getting jealous, etc. But in the end a lot of support came in, and his fan base grew bigger,” she smiled.
Now arguably the de facto poster-boy for not just swimming, but all of Singapore sport, Joseph commands attention from both media and admirers on the street whenever he returns home.
“I told him, you’re a public figure, you better behave yourself,” said May. “People are ever-ready to criticise. They’ll forget you’re still a kid and will just pick on your faults.”
And that doesn’t even include the athletic expectation weighing on his young shoulders – a fact Joseph is well aware of, said his mother, and a non-issue, because “he’s already aiming higher than what they want”.
Joseph’s next excursion in the public spotlight is December's Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar, where he is set to dominate his events if all goes as planned.
The 1.84m-tall ace, who bagged two golds at the 2011 edition, is certain of winning all three of his individual events (100m and 200m butterfly, 200m individual medley), said May.
“He’s already worked out what he’s supposed to do, and at the moment, he’s swimming faster than the records.”
Joseph’s rapid improvement, said May, can be put down to the high level of competition that the future University of Texas student has had to face since moving to Florida at 13.
While it’s been difficult having her only son thousands of kilometres away from the Marine Parade flat she calls home, she emphasised that the decision was always Joseph’s to make.
“He wants it. I didn’t force it on him, unlike some of the kids here whose parents are the ones pushing them,” she said. “The passion comes from Joseph.”
The boy’s resilience, then, must surely stem from his mother. Recalling Joseph’s 2012 Olympics debacle, where the distraction of a last-minute change in equipment saw him eliminated at the 200m butterfly heats, May said she was glad something like that happened early in his life.
“I told him: your goggles cannot (sic)? Then throw away the goggles,” she said. “They can’t stop you from swimming without goggles. There’s no rule to say you must wear goggles.”
“I didn’t make it easy for him. I didn’t pity him. I told him, you have to learn to deal with it,” May added. “He’s very competitive (now) because I always ‘give’ it to him since young (sic).”
Chasing the dream
As Joseph continues to devote the best years of his youth to the gargantuan mission that is Olympic glory, he can take heart in a pair of equally-dedicated parents supporting his every move and exuding unshakeable belief in his ability.
“In 2016, he will definitely be a finalist,” said May. “Podium… if he gets there, it’ll be good, whatever the medal.”
“But I told Joseph, you have to give them the ammunition to defer you further!” she laughed. “In fact, 2020 is a better year for him… 25, that’s when he’ll be strongest, he’ll be done with university and can go professional.”
“Actually… he’s good for two more Olympics (after 2016)… He’ll still be only 29,” May went on, as any mother dreaming for her son’s future would.
And after Joseph’s swimming pursuits run their course?
“He might go to the States and work,” said May. “But he will come back here lah. Ultimately his heart is still Singapore.”
As they say, mother knows best.
Joseph Schooling and the rest of Singapore's national swimmers launch their SEA Games campaign on 12 December. Catch all the action at the 2013 Games from 5 - 22 December in Myanmar, here on Yahoo Singapore.