Three years after beating Michael Phelps, Joseph Schooling seeking relevancy

The news from Gwangju spread quickly in Singapore, and the reactions were swift. Less than three years after beating Michael Phelps to win a gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly at the Rio Olympics, Joseph Schooling did not qualify for the same event at the 2019 World Championships in South Korea.

School’s gold medal was his country’s first ever at the Olympics in any sport, instantly making him a historical figure and a national hero. But as it had been two years earlier at the World Championships, the men’s butterfly events in Gwangju were dominated by Caeleb Dressel, Schooling’s former high schoolmate in Florida, and Kristof Milak, the Hungarian teenager whose continual rise echoes that of Schooling’s not so long ago. Milak and Dressel took turns to smash 10-year-old world marks in the 200m and 100m previously set by Phelps. In the latter event, Schooling was beaten by 23 other men.

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Eleven months out from the Tokyo Olympics, Schooling is nowhere near the 51.96 set by FINA as the “A” qualifying mark in the 100, and there is real danger he could miss out on the 2020 Games if things don’t go his way.

Could it be that at 24, an age when athletes are expected to be hitting the peak of their powers, the six-time Singapore Sportsman of the Year is washed up?

“I don’t think the times reflected what physical state I was in,” Schooling told ESPN.com last month. “There were a lot of things externally that were holding me back. We’ve gotten those things cleared up. Right now, it’s all about swimming, about how to improve, how to get better.

“We’ve changed a couple of transitions since I’ve been back from Korea. I feel a lot better practice-wise, set different goals day-in and day-out so you have something work towards, so that you’re not just swimming aimlessly, just because you want to work hard. That part mentally, I’ve definitely cleared up, and the coaches and I are all on the same page, and we have a great sense of direction right now, better than I thought this early coming back in the season.”

A gold medalist in the 2016 Rio Games, Joseph Schooling has yet to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images for Singapore Sports Hub

There was a tacit admission that his mind had not been entirely focused on swimming since Rio, but is starting to get back in order.

Readjusting to life back in Singapore after spending most of the last decade in the United States has had its share of travails. Schooling left for the Bolles School in Florida at the age of 14 and went on to the University of Texas for four years of college. Even after his Rio triumph, which cemented his national hero status, he could retreat to relative anonymity in Austin, away from constant scrutiny.

By his reckoning, it hasn’t been a smooth landing since he relocated back home in February.

“The last few years, I came back to Singapore in short blocks, and you could always go back to the U.S. and live the lifestyle I was comfortable with,” Schooling said. “Coming back to Singapore indefinitely was kind of a big change. Now you go out and you’re under the microscope more constantly. I’ve never been put through that. This is kind of the first time I’m here for that amount of time. So all these things take a toll on your performance in the pool.

Schooling admitted he’s about to move out from his home, going against the Asian norm where unmarried adults would often continue staying with their parents, especially an only child like him. But a decade in the States, particularly the four years in Austin when his parents loosened the reins, has given Schooling an appreciation of his own space.

“I’m used to living by myself, and once you do that, I think it’s very hard to go back and live with your parents,” he said. “Although I do love being around them and being under the same roof as them, you need your own space to recharge. I’ve grown accustomed to having my own space, my own friends, being on my own time schedule.”

Despite being his nation’s biggest draw, Schooling signed up for only the 200m at his home leg of the FINA World Cup this year, a clear. Describing his first competitive 200m individual medley for four years as a “litmus test,” Schooling was pleased with the results. After clocking the fastest time of 2:03.38 in the morning heats, he went three seconds faster in the final and narrowly missed out on the podium.

Joseph Schooling stunned Michael Phelps in the 100m fly three years ago at the Rio Games to win gold. Clive Rose/Getty Images

Schooling has until June 29, 2020 to qualify for Tokyo.

“I can’t be too comfortable,” Schooling said. “Once you’re too comfortable, you start losing track of what you need to do. So right now, I’m definitely out of my comfort zone, but at the same time me being out of my comfort zone has made me more motivated than I ever have been.”

And the experience of having once climbed on to the top step of the Olympic podium is helping with his preparations.

“I think it’s going to be the exact same thing. Experience comes into play,” he said. “You know that you’ve gone through it once, and you can go through it again. That’s something you can rely on and back yourself mentally. Feeling that way is good, it means you’re ready to go, you’re excited, you want it badly, so I’m counting on myself to go through that same emotions exactly.

“The lead-up to this next Olympics has been completely different from the lead-up to Rio, so I’m going to reflect on the things I’ve gone through, the work you’ve put in to get into this spot.

“You’ve got one time, one moment to shine — and that’s why you train every day to be ready for it.”

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