‪#‎NeverForget‬ The same group of people who have seemingly turned their backs on our national hero is now por-ing and licking his boots like their lives depend on it.

I met Joseph Schooling’s father, Colin Schooling, during a sports dialogue, ironically headed by Tan Chuan-Jin, back in 2015, and the way he spoke about his son was truly something special. His love and determination for his son to succeed was so blatant it was nothing short of admirable. And so was his wife, May, who fought fiercely for his son to defer National Service. Both of them did what they could to support Joseph and his $1m training fees in the U.S..

During the 28th SEA Games, while working with the camera crew, I got ample opportunities to be literally right beside Schooling – from the start, when he does his trademark “whoo” before diving, to the end, when he smashes the pool to celebrate his victories, to the medal ceremonies, where he accepted nine consecutive gold medals, and even to his post-race celebrations, where he demonstrated his atrocious throwing skills (supportes threw memorabilia for him to autograph and he had trouble throwing it back to them. To make it worse, the crowd was awkwardly silent throughout the whole episode – absolutely hilarious stuff). I doubt he remembers me, but it was a pleasure watching him race. I told his Dad that much when he asked me if I’ve “enjoyed his son’s races”.

If Joseph Schooling was born into another family, a typical Singapore family who might not have the financial means or the risk-taking mindsets to send him to the US to train under world-renowned coaches, he would never have won, period. The climate and mentality of sports in this city-state is too toxic for most athletes to thrive and succeed it. Don’t just take it from me, take it from the 10+ former champions, Olympians and national record holders who raised similar worries and concerns at the dialogue.

His best friend, Teo Zhen Ren, comes into mind, and fellow Olympian Quah Zheng Wen is another. Both of them are absolute beasts in their own right – the former notched 15 gold medals in six swim meets in the U.S., while the latter, who’s two years younger than Schooling, well, he was the first Singaporean to qualify for an Olympic swimming semi-final. His exploits in the SEA Games need no elaboration. Zhen Ren’s parents apparently had the financial means to send his child to Bolles Swimming School together with Schooling, but they just couldn’t bare to part with him. Zhen Wen, meanwhile, wasn’t so lucky to begin with.

Perhaps it is just my observation, but the way he looks at Schooling when he won his events at the SEA Games is scary. There was so much tension hanging in the air whenever the two were together, and I cannot recall the two speaking to each other at all (besides during the relay races) during the entire nine days. These are things that weren’t captured on the cameras, so if you need a more visual description, Google “Michael Phelps vs Chad le Clos”. With that being said, I really hope Zheng Wen succeeds – anyone who has watched him race knows that he has the potential to be a world-beater and even, dare I say, finally get one over Schooling.

However, one thing I noticed, between the 2015 SEA Games, and the photos that emerged from Rio 2016, Joseph Schooling looks extremely weary. Tired and exhausted. He looks absolutely smashed for someone who has just won an Olympic gold medal and obliterated Michael Phelps in the process. And this is why it puzzles me, why the government is still insisting Joseph Schooling serves his National Service. Do these out-of-touch folks know just how TOUGH the training regime for swimmers are? 4am mornings, three swimming sessions per day, ten gym sessions per week. Some of my friends were former competitive swimmers and I’ve seen first hand the side-effects of their ridiculously tough training. Their achievements are not something that I’ll ever be envious of because the amount of blood, sweat and tears they put into their uphill battles is truly insane. Back in the days, there was a special unit in the Army where the recruits who were representing Singapore just played sports for their training. I do not see why he can’t head down that same route. It will be a win-win for all parties involved – Schooling gets the crucial training he requires at his peak, while the government gets to continue shamelessly claiming credit when he wins more gold medals.

We have already made this mistake with the legendary Ang Peng Siong (dubbed the “World’s Fastest Man” in 1984) – he was forced into the military during the time he was peaking, was forced to do more than the rest, and he promptly suffered a heat stroke – and he failed to scale new heights after that due to the disruption in his training. I can hear the pain, regret and envy in his voice whenever he’s commentating about Schooling at the OCBC Aquatic Centre.
Schooling is what he would have become if not for the state cruelly destroying his progress. It is vital we do not let history repeat itself. Do not let National Service ruin the careers of potential champions. You cannot have the best of both worlds. I have said this so many times, and I’m going to repeat myself again, the BIGGEST problem facing athletes is National Service and National Service alone. If we can’t understand basic science and punish people who are born with a penis, we really don’t deserve any sporting success.

Let’s also not forget about the government’s initial failure to purchase the broadcast rights, claiming it was a “commercial decision”. For a country that’s third-richest in the world, one who spends nearly half a million on a bin shed, that’s a li’ll rich don’t you think? If we can spend $245 million annually on scholarships for foreign students, claiming surely we can spend ~$6 million to bring joy, jubilation and unite Singaporeans in a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I mean, it’s true isn’t it? After Schooling won, guess who was the first to congratulate him? Grace Fu, the same minister who did not want to broadcast the Olympics in the first place!

So to sum it all up, the government is not responsible for his astonishing success, and neither are we. Him, and his family, they’re the ones, responsible for his immense achievement. They were there for him from the start, and we weren’t. We were busy laughing at his unapproved swimming caps and goggles during the 2012 London Olympics, calling him a foreign talent after he dominated the 2013 Myanmar SEA Games, and labelling his medal in the 2014 World Championships as a fluke, while the ministers and sports officials were no better, busy paying themselves millions of dollars. They did not sponsor his training, they did not speak up and fight for his deferment, and they certainly did not show trust in him by prioritising money over broadcasting his exploits. Like the state-controlled media who betrayed our athletes during Rio 2016 with their constant criticisms and nagging, we too turned our backs on him time and time again.

Joseph Schooling might be deserving of our support, but we are not deserving of a champion like him.

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