SINGAPORE — Joseph Schooling has been looking at his bedroom wall for motivation these days.
Not at posters of his swimming idols, and certainly not staring into blank space, moping about his recent World Championships disappointment.
No, Schooling is instead reading news articles – carefully framed up on the wall by his dad Colin – of himself early in his swimming career, and drawing inspiration from what he had told the media back then.
“I think it was the Singapore National Open, back in 2011 or 2012, when I broke the national 100m and 200m butterfly records,” the 24-year-old swim star told Yahoo News Singapore in an interview on Wednesday (14 August), before he takes part in the Fina Swimming World Cup series in Singapore.
Speaking at the OCBC Aquatic Centre, he said, “I had said that it was my best-ever meet performance up till then, and I totally forgot that I had done badly in the 100m freestyle, not even making the top eight in that event.
“It’s nice to know that, even back in those days, I was able to bounce back from a bad race and have that grit inside of me. It’s a good feeling to have for what I have to do in the next 11 months or so.”
Setbacks after World Championships
And he has to do a lot of catching up, as he enters the final year as the defending Olympic champion in the 100m fly.
It was almost exactly three years ago, on 12 August 2016, that Schooling swam the race of his life in Rio de Janeiro, edging three swim greats – Chad le Clos, Laszlo Cseh and his idol Michael Phelps – to clinch Singapore’s first and only Olympic gold.
Three years of near-constant adulation by his home country ensued, but last month came murmurs of criticism after he bombed badly at the World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea.
Failing to make the 100m fly semi-finals, clocking a poor race timing, and watching his American rival Caeleb Dressel break the world record en route to gold – any of those setbacks would be enough to plant seeds of doubt into Schooling.
Has the thought of not even making the podium at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics ever crossed his mind?
“Honestly, no,” he insisted. “But if it happens somewhere down the road, I’ll just think, ‘All right, how can I be the best version of myself?’ And I know that, if I can improve as a person, the results will come.
“I can only think about the things that I can control. At the end of the day, if it's meant to be, it's meant to be. But damn right I'm going to put myself in the best possible spot to be out there. That's all I can control.”
Urgency returns in pushing boundaries
Clearly, there is no shortage of confidence in Schooling. Just as clearly for him, though, is the fact that there is precious little time to waste.
Even before he returned home from the World Championships late last month, he had already begun planning with his coaching team on how to bounce back.
Goals were reassessed and recalibrated, training regimes were redrawn. More importantly, there was a sense of urgency, and Schooling enthusiastically spoke of the mentality he must be locked into from now until the Tokyo Games.
“You’ve got to be urgent, you cannot be feeling too comfortable if you want to be pushing your boundaries. Once you get too comfortable, you’ll overlook the little things,” he said.
“(Head coach) Gary (Tan) has definitely got more grey hair since I’ve been back home, for sure. He’s a very emotional coach and is a tough guy when he needs to be, and that’s awesome. That’s exactly what I need.
“I was very goal-oriented before Rio, and that’s what I have to be. My team are setting all these targets, like doing middle distances and getting my swim volume up again. It’s exciting to go to training every day in order to meet them.”
Dad’s special motivation
Indeed, the desire to prove doubters wrong remains strong for Schooling. While he said that the public are free to criticise his poor recent performances, he does not dwell on their comments.
For he knows that his biggest supporters – his parents Colin and May – are still motivating him in their own special way.
“My parents are way, way wiser than I am,” he said with a wide smile. “For the last few months, my dad has been urging me to read this book, Conquering the Pool by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. I finally got to reading it these few days, and the first few pages was about this Russian 1,500m freestyle swimmer Vladimir Salnikov, who won three golds at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
“He wasn’t satisfied with the golds because the US had boycotted the Games, and he had to wait until the 1988 Olympics before the two countries competed together again. By then, everyone had written him off after he failed to make the 1,500m free final at the 1987 World Championships. Guess what? He won the gold medal again.
“Reading things like that really inspire me, knowing that a ton of people had been in the same spot before. It's not impossible.”
Tickets to the Fina Swimming World Cup presented by Yakult (from Thursday to Saturday at OCBC Aquatic Centre) start from $30 per day or $60 for three days. They are on sale at the Sports Hub website.