Joseph Schooling is in transition.
Having just completed his final National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) competition earlier this year, he has officially shifted from an amateur to professional swimmer. About to complete his final year at The University of Texas in Austin (majoring in economics), he’ll soon be trading in his schoolbooks for a bachelor’s degree. And, although he is the reigning Olympic men’s 100m butterfly champion—his victorious fist rising from the pool, after beating his personal hero Michael Phelps in the final, forever etched into the minds of Singaporeans—at the age of just 22, he is still very much an impressionable young adult.
“Everyone sees him as this tall and big swimmer,” says his mother, May Schooling, during an outfit change at our cover shoot in Lockhart, Texas—a small country town just outside Austin. “But to me…” she pauses, taking in her handsome son dressed in a grey pinstriped blazer, smiling under a black cowboy hat, “he’s still a boy.”
In fact, he is Singapore’s golden boy; a propped-up beacon by Singaporean parents everywhere for the powerful combination of ambition and discipline. “It’s all a bit crazy,” says Joe [he rarely introduces himself as Joseph] when I ask him about life after the Rio Olympics. “Especially when I go back to Singapore. It’s intense.” And what about being the first Singapore ambassador for Hugo Boss? “I’m very honoured,” he confesses, shuffling around in his leather boots in between shots on set—looking every bit the young maverick that he is; a maverick leading a new generation of Asian men and women into the sporting fray. “I just hope I do them proud.”
The day before the shoot in Lockhart, standing around the dining table of his Austin apartment—his mother within earshot, watching TV on the sofa; unseasonably cold rain beating against the sliding glass doors to his left—Joe, dressed simply in a polo, could pass off as any other obedient son speaking with his father.
“You sit here, son,” says Colin Schooling. “Yes, sir,” responds Joe.
“Are you ready for me to interview you?” “Yes, sir.”
“Okay, let’s start,” announces Colin.
What better way to get into the mind of Singapore’s Olympic champion—a hero with the weight of the world on his shoulders leading up to Tokyo 2020—than to have him interviewed by the man who has stewarded him thus far: from son to Singapore’s son, from amateur to professional, from student to graduate, from sportsman to brand ambassador and, ultimately, from a boy into a man.
Joseph Schooling: So, what’s up, pop?
Colin Schooling: There are a lot of expectations of you from Singapore and around the world. There’s the Asian Games, the World Championship next year and then the Olympics again. What are you looking for now? You’ve achieved your dream, which is the Olympic gold at the age of 21. So what’re your expectations now? Apart from others’ expectations?
Joseph: The only expectations that matter now are my own. My expectations for myself are to just keep getting better. As long as I can see a good improvement from now until the end of my career, I think that’s all I can really ask for. You don’t want to hit your peak plateau and start coming down. I think I’m still pretty young. And I think there’s a higher ceiling for me to achieve.
Colin: Mention has been made about [American swimmer] Caeleb Dressel and his performance in the World Championships last year. It has been said that he hasn’t been given the proper accolades like you because he hasn’t won an individual Olympic Gold. What are your comments or what do you have to say about this?
Joseph: I think Caeleb is an awesome swimmer. It’s good and bad that, you know, Caeleb is not a household name or has not gotten that kind of exposure that an Olympic medallist does. That doesn’t mean that he’s a bad swimmer. He’s the best swimmer in the world. I think he’ll do well in the Olympics [in 2020] and he’ll make a bigger name for himself in Tokyo. So not to worry about that, it’s just how it is. The exposure at the Olympics: the competition, the culture and tradition, it’s different than any other meet.
Colin: Do you think he will be an added inspiration for you to train even harder because he has set a very high benchmark?
Joseph: Yeah, of course, definitely. Caeleb has been doing well, and you can’t take anything for granted if you want to beat them, you gotta be at your best.
Colin: I think so and that’s good. Now, going forward, you’re going to graduate from university soon. Mummy and I are here in Austin now to attend your school banquet and we will come back for your graduation. Are you looking forward to it?
Joseph: Yeah, of course. I’m closing a lid on this old chapter. It’s been a fun ride and the journey has been awesome. I’ve had the chance to meet a bunch of awesome people. A lot of my teammates are like family to me. And obviously, I’ve had my ups and downs in college swimming and also on the world stage, but it’s all a learning process. As long as you can take away what you did wrong and use that to better yourself in training, then that’s all you can really ask for. You worry about the things you can control and you don’t worry about other people. That’s my thought process on things.
Joseph: You can’t be super locked onto something and be hyper focused all the time. But consistency is key. No one can be their best in training or at the meet all the time. But as long as you can be as consistent as you can be at the top, I think that’s the best you can do.
Colin: Mummy and I have been very happy with you since you were a baby till today. Except that sometimes we need to give you your own freedom to do what you want. Like I told mum, we have to get out and let you have that freedom to move, you know.
Joseph: Yeah… [laughs]
Colin: But like every parent, we all worry. What will happen to you when we let you off into the wild? [Laughs] But anyway, it’s been fun. I just hope that we have not made you an unhappy man because, by bringing you to this level of excellence in swimming, we have also presented you with the stress of expectation by others. Everybody has very high expectations of you. And you have very high expectations of yourself. So every time you’re under this pressure cooker to perform.
"I just hope that we have not made you an unhappy man because, by bringing you to this level of excellence in swimming, we have also presented you with the stress of expectation by others."— Colin Schooling
Joseph: Ugh hmmm…
Colin: What made me sad is when you came in third in the World Championships last year in Budapest, your bronze medal was seen by many as a kind of defeat. And you actually won you know—third in the world! There are so many aspiring young swimmers who are coming out in the world now. You look at the Commonwealth Games, some of these young boys who are coming up, you haven’t heard of them before. And I think in the pursuit of the excellence in swimming and to be the best you can ever be, you will be confronted continuously with all of these talents. How do you prepare yourself physically and mentally to accommodate them?
Joseph: You just gotta, like I said, only worry about yourself. Obviously, it’s good to keep tabs on who you’re racing against, know what you’re doing, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. But the most important thing is to focus on yourself. You know, that’s an easy saying. It sounds easy, but in reality, converting it into action is one of the hardest things you have to do in your career.
You’ve got to tune out the haters. The more people who say bad things or throw shade and hate at you, to me, that’s awesome. Because the more hate you get, the more successful you are.
Colin: That’s good.
Joseph: So, you know, all these forums, websites and columns are for swim fans, they’re not for swimmers. The thing is that, like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt or whoever, the greats in their sports tell you that you’re going to be under the microscope, you’re going to be scrutinised for everything you do, you’re going to be killed online or whatever, if you don’t meet people’s expectations. But it doesn’t matter. It’s all about you. It’s all about how you control and present yourself. And if you don’t have a good swim, it’s all about how you come back and prove the naysayers wrong and have a better swim. So that’s my philosophy on how I do things. You know, it’s pretty simple to conceptualise, but in reality, you gotta go through the motions.
Colin: This question-and-answer session we’re having right now, I think it’s wonderful. Because it also gives me an opportunity and the chance to be the devil’s advocate. It lets me ask you questions and see how you answer, and it gives me comfort to know—let me tell you now directly to your face—that you have matured. And that makes me happy because right now, like I told you, after your graduation, I have fulfilled my paternal care and paternal obligations. And I will not be bothering you all the time. But it gives me comfort to know that when I walk away, I leave a very strong individual who knows exactly what he’s doing. Huh? You understand?
Joseph: Hmmm, thank you.
Colin: Daddy loves you for that.
Joseph: I love you too.
Colin: And the other thing, while we’re here, this Boss that you’re wearing right now. Unfortunately, I don’t have any Boss shirts here [laughs]. And I didn’t give Norman [editor-in- chief of Esquire Singapore] a chance to bring some shirts for me [laughs]. Never mind, all my Boss items are in Singapore. So Boss, why Boss? Why not Gucci or some other fashion houses like Giorgio Armani?
Joseph: That’s an easy question. Because Hugo Boss is the best brand in the world. That’s why. They make the best-looking clothes. They do a good job.
Colin: You’re not being in a commercial, are you? [Laughs]
"We’re not special, as athletes. We’re no different."— Joseph Schooling
Joseph: No, not at all. One of the best experiences I ever had in my life was getting my first tailor-made suit. They brought me to the back room, super professional, great people to work with. And it’s almost like a kid in a candy shop for the first time. It was amazing. I never knew that there were that many materials, fabrics, patterns, designs. It was just a great experience. And what’s more important is that they are great people to work with. We have a healthy working relationship. And like I said, if I need to look good, the suit makes me look good. So I got to thank them for that.
Colin: You remember that day when I was measured by Hugo Boss and I took some photographs of myself and sent them to you? What was your impression?
Joseph: I was like: ‘Dad, you look like a model.’
Colin: [Laughs loudly] Even in my late 60s at the time, huh?
Joseph: I saw the cover shot y’all did at SICC for Esquire Singapore [for the November 2016 issue]. The one with you at the pool. That was pretty cool. I showed the issue to all my friends and they were pretty impressed.
Colin: That’s your friends. My friends were thinking: ‘My goodness, this Colin, I think drinking and alcohol has taken over him.’
Joseph: [Laughs loudly]
Colin: [Laughs] Even for me, I also learnt that Hugo Boss took me from a peasant to a very fashionable chap, and showed me what is a classic suit—how is it made, what are the things that go into making a suit. Now I can tell when a person wears a suit, if it is handmade or is bought off the rack. So they’ve taught me the expertise. And it’s phenomenal to see if they should use padding or not. Good suits don’t use so much padding. Things like that. And what kind of a thread they use. Even the buttons are made from horns. Wah, I tell you, it’s fantastic.
Joseph: Dad, that was a good experience…
Colin: And even for me when they took my measurements for my shoes, it was by laser, you know.
They took a laser and went round. I’m waiting for those to come out. Did they do it for you?
Joseph: No, not yet.
Colin: No? Not yet.
Joseph: Before we go on, just touching back on the point you made, or the question you asked about, if exposing me to all this made me an unhappy person. I would say absolutely not. Um, you know, in everything we do in life, there are going to be different stressors and whether being pressured by other people or by yourself to perform in your sport—or if you’re a big-time CEO from a Fortune 500 company, being pressed to bring in better results—there are all sorts of stressors in life.
Just because many many people have high expectations of myself and it automatically puts more stress on me, it doesn’t mean that it’s any different to the stressors that normal working people face in their everyday lives. So everyone has to go through this. We’re not special, as athletes. We’re no different. We might have a different training regime or different schedule throughout the day. But at the end of the day, it boils down to how you cope with that stress, how you improve on your results no matter what field you’re in. And the most important thing is to love what you do.
"You’ve got to tune out the haters. The more people who say bad things or throw shade and hate at you, to me, that’s awesome."— Joseph Schooling
Joseph: That’s the number one thing. So if you love what you do, which I do, there’s no reason you should be unhappy. You can be unhappy at a practice because you didn’t do well or at a swim meet because you didn’t swim as fast as you wanted to, but overall, the big picture, I would say of course I’m very happy to have the best parents in the world…
Colin: Ah, thank you…
Joseph: …and some of the best friends anyone can ask for. So as far as my happiness is concerned, I’m happy. Very happy overall. And this is all because of you and mum.
Colin: Thank you. Well, we love you so much and you’re the only one that we have. That is why sometimes we tend to be overprotective. You know it. When you’re not back at a certain time, there goes mum’s alarm. [Laughs]
Joseph: [Laughs] The mum police is gonna getcha.
Colin: [Laughs] You know this is all for a good reason, son.
Joseph: Yeah. For sure. I know I’m a playful guy and like to have fun. So, I definitely need to have someone like mum to keep me in check.
Colin: What gives us comfort is that when we walk away from here, and walk away from this whole situation, we know that you’re in good hands. In good hands with yourself and with your own mind. Disciplined. You’re matured lah, you know. If you don’t do well, if you don’t put in the required effort, and if you don’t fare well, don’t cry about it man. Because you’re just as good as the amount the effort that you’ve put in.
Joseph: Yes, sir.
Colin: Talk is cheap, as they say. If you sit down there and say that you want to be the world champ, you got to put in the time and effort. You know that, son.
Joseph: Uh hmmm.
Colin: Austin. America. You’ve been here since you were in Grade 8. And now, you’re going to finish university. What has UT or America done for you, son? In terms of exposure, in terms of the system and so forth.
Joseph: Obviously, Singapore and America have two different cultures. So I grew up in Singapore, and I was accustomed to Singaporean culture and stuff. But then I had to come to America, a place halfway around the world, to go to boarding school and, like you’ve said, I was 13 to 14, never been away from home all by myself. I’d say, Singapore kids, in general, are pretty privileged. Compared to some of the people I’ve seen over here. For me, you and mum have always spoilt me, growing up. I never had to make my bed, never had to do laundry, never had to do dishes or any chores, you know. So I grew up very privileged.
And, when you threw me into boarding school, suddenly your whole world turns upside down. It’s definitely a hard process, for sure. It’s hard to acclimatise, you have to find new friends, you have to go under a new school system, all these different things factor in. And it was probably the hardest year of my life.
Colin: But you know I had to do it eh? That’s what you call baptism by fire.
Joseph: Yeah, I know.
Colin: You had your own maid, you had your own driver, you had your own car. Everything was taken care of. But you know something, like I told your teachers in school, you really made me proud. Because you could hack it and you could do it. Without crying and grumbling about it. You never grumble about taking care of these chores you know, to mum and me. Did you know that? Like some of the kids that have never been exposed and they start grumbling, that’s something else. Luckily daddy could afford a lot of things. Thank goodness, got to thank the good Lord.
Can you remember, when growing up, what was my main emphasis for you in life? What strikes you the most?
Joseph: ‘Be an officer and a gentleman.’ That’s one of the quotes that stuck with me. That phrase encompasses so many different meanings and so many important life values.
Colin: To be an officer and a gentleman. It covers a lot of things. In my perception of life, things must be very simple and very forceful. Then it carries a lot of weight, you know what I mean? You can see a lot of beautiful things, to quote from Shakespeare, Gandhi or Buddha, but if it doesn’t strike you, it doesn’t strike you.
Like I tell other people, I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery, which is why we went to Jacksonville. We got a home. Mum and I sacrificed six months of the year to look after you. Because we wanted you to have good values. We want you to be a young adult, groomed into good habits and manners, you know?
Joseph: Uh hmmm.
Colin: A lot of people tell me: ‘Colin, you’re very lucky that your son is so well-mannered.’ This is not lucky, okay.
Colin: [Laughs] They forgot the amount of work that has to be put in. But anyway, I thank the good Lord that you have come up the way you have. That’s why a lot of people right now are looking forward to sponsoring and exposing you. That makes me happy because you have succeeded in selling or presenting yourself—that you are a worthwhile candidate to be sponsored. You are a worthwhile candidate to be exposed. You are a worthwhile candidate to be marketed. And you have done well in that.
Joseph: Thank you.
Colin: And now the people believe in you. That’s the key you know, son. You always remember that these are the people that put you there and you must try to never disappoint them.
You know, when I saw you signing autographs and you’ve got these little fellas standing beside you, and somebody said to you, ‘Joseph, you gotta go because the boss is waiting for you’, you said: ‘No. I will finish signing all the autographs for the children.’ That touched my heart. That means you care. [It’s not about] how big you are or how famous you are. You make sure the little fellas are taken care of because they spent the whole day waiting for you, and you didn’t want to disappoint them. That touched my heart.
From the side. I was watching you and I thought, that’s good. Those are good values, son. And never forget that. No matter how famous you are. You remember your shit never smells good, you know.
Joseph: [Laughs] Absolutely.
Colin: [Laughs] I don’t know if this is the right thing to say, and I don’t care. And I mean it.
Joseph: That’s true. There’s no point sugarcoating facts [laughs].
Colin: What have you benefited [laughs]… from mum and me?
Joseph: [Laughs] Well, the thing I’ve benefited from you, it would be probably being very structured. Mum and I can definitely be a little late sometimes, and we definitely need you to keep us in check. I think the attention to detail would be the most important thing I’ve gotten from you.
In all your e-mails, even though you don’t need to write essays, when you reply someone, you do it. Because you don’t want there to be any doubt in your mind whether you’ve left out something—you want to get your point across. And that’s the definition of communication. Saying something that the other party will understand or remember.
"A lot of people tell me: ‘Colin, you’re very lucky that your son is so well-mannered.’ This is not lucky, okay. They forgot the amount of work that has to be put in. But anyway, I thank the good Lord that you have come up the way you have."— Colin Schooling
Colin: That is why when I was teaching English part-time to children, I played a tape and told them to listen very carefully. English is spoken in various places of America differently. You look at the Canadians. You look at the English, and the Irish and Scottish. All of them are speaking English. But they are all different. The key to communication is when I speak to you about something, communicating with you on any matter, if I have spoken something and you understood me, then I’ve succeeded in my means of communication. That is communication to me. I don’t give a shit if you slang and say: ‘Hey baby, how’s it hanging?’. If I say something and you can understand what I’ve said, I have succeeded in my quest.
Joseph: What have you learned from me?
Colin: What have I learned from you? Very simple. Determination. You are also disciplined in your own ways. Until and when you’re in National Service, then you will understand the meaning of being on time. Till then, a lot of people are quite casual about time. I am not casual about time. If it is 10 o’clock, I make sure I head to the showers at 9:15, because Norman says he’s coming at 10 o’clock. [Laughs] So I have to make sure that I don’t want to be caught with my pyjamas on. So I make sure everything is cleared—I cleared my breakfast. And mummy got to wash and clean everything. And we wait for our guest to come. And spot on, Norman came at 10. It makes me happy.
Joseph: Dad, you were on the cover of Esquire Singapore many months ago. And I’m having a photo shoot with them tomorrow morning. So my question is, what are some tips that you can give me? I’m not sure what the scene is yet, but if it happens to be in the pool with a suit on, I know I can always come to you with good advice.
Colin: [Laughs] Tomorrow I’ve already told Norman to leave me out of the equation. I’m going to watch the Masters golf finals.
Colin: Just enjoy it tomorrow. So they are going have you for two, three hours or whatever. Just be happy and go with what they do. You know what I mean? These guys have flown in all the way from Singapore to photograph you. I think it’s a privilege.
Joseph: It is.
Colin: To put you on their magazine is a privilege. All I can say is that if they are dedicated enough to sacrifice their time, then we also have to reciprocate.
Joseph: I agree. That’s good advice.
Colin: Now for both parties, it’s business. If you will be exposed [through this shoot], then they have done their job. About having the right posture when modelling? They are the artisans. They will be able to know. We just go along with them and just be a good model lah. [Laughs] They will be able to propagate to the others in the industry how good you are.
Joseph: Yes sir.
Colin: So that’s my advice to you. Enjoy it and be good at what you do
Joseph: I like it. [Laughs]
This article was originally published in the June/July issue of Esquire Singapore.
Photography: Onin Lorente
Text and styling: Norman Tan
Hair and makeup: Shannon Van Horn/Trove Artist Management
Production assistant: Adam Moroz