Olympics: Showdown in Rio as Schooling eyes gold
Joseph Schooling continues to redefine what is possible for a Singaporean athlete.
Not content with being the only swimmer to go under 51 seconds in the 100m butterfly this year - on the biggest stage at the Olympics no less - he is relishing the pressure and using it to fuel his ambition of winning Olympic gold tonight (9.12am Singapore time).
He served notice on Thursday in the Rio Olympic Aquatics Stadium pool, topping the time sheets in the 100m fly heats and semi-finals and will head into today's final as the fastest qualifier and the Republic's first male Olympic finalist.
His time of 50.83sec was a new personal best, a national and Asian record and was also the event's quickest time in 2016. Pleased? Yes. Contented? Not quite yet.
Towel over his head, water dripping from his hefty body, he said minutes after his race: "That's not really a benchmark. It's all about winning the gold medal.
"I don't care if I break the world record and get a silver or bronze, I still lost. It's all about winning."
A glance at his statistics will encourage coaches Eddie Reese, Schooling's mentor at the University of Texas, and Sergio Lopez, who trained Schooling for five years at the Bolles School in Florida. Schooling had the quickest reaction time (0.61sec) of the 16 semi-finalists, the third-fastest first 50m (23.81) and fastest return leg (27.02).
National coach Lopez said: "Jo's execution of his swim was good. When it comes to the final, it's not about your timing. You could swim 52 but touch the wall first and that's all that matters."
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To do that, he will have to stop the indomitable Michael Phelps, winner of this event for the past three Olympics and also the Games record holder (50.58 set at Beijing 2008).
At 31, the American still looks as dominant as ever, winning all four of his events in Brazil. The 22-time Olympic champion clocked 51.58 in the first 100m fly semi-final and was fifth fastest but that can be attributed to fatigue. He had won the 200m individual medley, held about 35 minutes before the 100m fly semis.
South African le Clos, 24, a double 100m fly world champion, was second-fastest in 51.43 followed by Chinese teen sensation Li Zhuhao (51.51). Five-time Olympic medallist Laszlo Cseh (51.57) of Hungary completes the formidable line-up.
Phelps, le Clos and Cseh, 30, will be on either side of Schooling in Lane 4, and hold the edge in terms of experience at this level. But Schooling, a 100m fly bronze medallist at last year's World Championships in Russia with a previous best of 50.96, is young and fresh.
He has swum less in terms of distance (400m) and spent less time (3min 19.21sec) in the pool racing, far less than his main rivals Phelps (1,700m & 19:17.62), le Clos (1,400m & 15:45.06) and Cseh (800m & 7:29.65).
After the heats, Phelps referred to Schooling as "a great swimmer" and a Swimming Australia official, passing the Singapore media in the mixed zone, added that "you guys have a special one in that boy" as he pointed in Schooling's direction.
Since the post super-suit era from 2010, only Phelps (50.45) and le Clos (50.56) have managed faster times than Schooling.
Tao Li was previously the only Singaporean to swim in an Olympic 'A' final. She finished fifth in the 100m fly at the 2008 Beijing Games.
But Schooling has loftier goals in mind. He said: "I'm all about winning medals, trying to win.
"It's great to be the first (Singaporean) to make the top eight but we have a lot of young talent coming up and I'm sure a lot of people in the future from Singapore can make the top eight.
"We shouldn't be looking at only making the top eight, we should be looking at winning medals and winning gold medals. So that's what I'm trying to set."
One of his favourite movies is Peaceful Warrior, a film about a gymnast who suffers a horrific leg injury but recovers.
In the final scene in the midst of his routine, the protagonist asks himself, where are you?
"Here", comes the reply in his head.
What time is it? "Now."
What are you? "This moment."
For Schooling, this could finally be his time, his golden moment.
Sent from my iPhone