Joseph Schooling: 'I didn't see myself as going against the system, but going down a different pathway than tradition'


Singapore's first Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling announces retirement from competitive swimming at Chinese Swimming Club. (PHOTO: Chia Han Keong/Yahoo Southeast Asia)

Singapore’s first Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling announces retirement from competitive swimming at Chinese Swimming Club. (PHOTO: Chia Han Keong/Yahoo Southeast Asia)

SINGAPORE — Joseph Schooling looked relaxed and confident as he strode into the grand ballroom of the Chinese Swimming Club to face the 50-odd members of the media to announce his retirement from competitive swimming on Tuesday morning (2 April).

Singapore’s first Olympic gold medallist spoke for about three minutes on how he came to his momentous decision to step away from the sport, and take his first steps into his new passions: a venture capital project with two partners, his swim school Sports Schooling, charity work and assisting his mother May at her trading company.

“I remember when I was four years old, I used to be so excited, hopping into an unreasonably freezing pool. Fast forward to where we are today. I woke up not feeling the same excitement to go to practice, I did not enjoy the grind anymore. Instead, going into the office with my mother was where I started feeling that same sense of excitement again,” he said candidly.

Following the announcement, Schooling smiled and said he was ready for the media questions, “No question is off limits, let’s have fun.” Here are some excerpts from the question-and-answer session, as well as his one-on-one interview with Yahoo Southeast Asia:

Q: How long did you take to reach your retirement decision? Were there backtracks? Was there a point where you felt comfortable with your decision?

A: I think it’s still too early for me to feel like I’m 100 per cent sure that this is the right path. I’ve learnt to be flexible, even though it goes against every fibre of my body, because as an athlete, you’d like to be in control. I’ve learnt that life doesn’t just work that way, especially once you’re out in the business side of my career.

I know that this is the right thing to do, but the future will be subject to change. I want to make all the right choices, but that’s just not how it works out in life. Still, I’m comfortable with where I am now.

The transition from being a top athlete to the next stage of life is never easy. Have you been preparing to manage your emotional state during this period?

A lot of the things I’ve learnt in swimming actually helps me gear up mentally for this, but it’s never a foolproof plan. You got to make things up on the fly – that’s part of what makes it exciting.

I think some athletes lose that sense of identity. Everything about who they are, is all tied to their accomplishments and their accolades. And once you move away from those things, you start losing confidence, you start losing yourself.

I’ve been really lucky to have people help me cultivate this business stage of my life. There was a point where I was scared to lose swimming, but now I’m not sort of scared anymore.

Did being unable to train properly during your national service (NS) lead to your decision to retire?

When I first went in, I had a really negative mindset about being taken out after the 2021 Tokyo Olympics to adjust to this new way of life. For the first three months, it was probably one of the hardest three months of my life.

But one morning during this period, I just came to a conclusion that I’ve just got to roll with it – you don’t fight the tide, you swim with it. As Singaporean males, this is something we all have to do. So you either come to terms with that or you’re going to have a really hard time.

Could things have been done better? Yes. But no, NS did not end my career. I ended it on my own terms.

Joseph Schooling on the winner's podium after winning the gold medal in the men's 100m butterfly at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics Games.Joseph Schooling on the winner's podium after winning the gold medal in the men's 100m butterfly at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics Games.

Joseph Schooling on the winner’s podium after winning the gold medal in the men’s 100m butterfly at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics Games. (PHOTO: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Looking back at your wonderful swimming career, besides winning the Olympic gold, what are the other fondest memories that you can think of?

Yeah, 2011 SEA Games, my first one. That one was a very unique experience – I remember going to the competition venue on a trishaw. I thought that was normal then, but I was very wrong haha.

I remember a race in 2007 when I was still in the Singapore Sports School, the last 50m of my 100m fly, I overtook everyone from seventh place and won. And each stroke along the way, I could hear my teammates screaming “Go, go, go!” because I was in the outside lane.

SEA Games in Singapore in 2015, when I went nine for nine (nine golds in nine races). And helping my University of Texas become the third side to go four-for-four (four golds in four relays) at the 2017 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships. These things mean a lot to me than it did before.

Do you see yourself as a rebel or a trailblazer, given that you’ve taken a unique path to success in Singapore?

I didn’t see myself as going against the system, but going down a different pathway than tradition. It all stems from my mum and dad, they’re the ones who went out, talked to people and found the right path for me to achieve my swimming success. They didn’t know what was the right path at the time, but it made the most sense to them.

As far as being a rebel or trailblazer, we always need to test the norm. That’s how we keep moving forward. And if people want to stay in the norm, fine, that’s your choice. But if we want to hit a certain high standard that no one has done before, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, so I’m glad I found another way.

There’s no reason why a person half a foot shorter than everyone else in that 2016 Olympic final should be where I am today, physiologically it was unlikely. But yet, here we are. So I hope young kids and parents can draw some inspiration and comfort in knowing that the impossible is actually possible.

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