If you had an Olympic medal—the first gold ever won by your country, no less—you could be forgiven for letting it go to your head just a little. Yet, two years after his dream win at the Rio Olympics, swimmer Joseph Schooling seems to have his head firmly screwed on. It’s a remarkable fact, given that he is just 22 and became a national hero overnight (or, more precisely, 50.39 seconds flat; which is the time it took him to beat Michael Phelps and set a new games record for the 100m butterfly).
The swimmer has been road-testing his newfound fame at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, which has been home for the last four years. He competed for the school’s prestigious swim team as an undergraduate and, although he officially graduated with an economics degree last year, is still wrapping up his coursework. He will continue to train there for the foreseeable future.
Harper’s Bazaar Singapore sat down with the Olympic champ during our poolside cover shoot in Los Angeles, where the unassuming star charmed the entire production team with his affable, obliging attitude as he modelled a pair of BOSS Swim shorts for the Bazaar video—his favourite item from his capsule collection with Boss, for whom he is the first Singaporean brand ambassador.
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Having recently turned pro means that he can now accept endorsements (such as the tie-in with Boss), so expect to see this Singapore icon associated with even more brands in the coming years. Day-to-day life, though, will continue much as before—and with a lot less glamour than one might think. “Going pro just means I’ve closed the chapter on collegiate swimming. But I’m still going to be training at the same place in Austin, and schedule-wise, it will be as busy or even busier,” he says.
A typical Schooling day for the past four years has gone something like this: Wake up at 5.15am, swim practice from 6 to 7.30am, classes from 9am to noon, weight training from 1 to 3pm, swimming again from 3 to 5pm, and then studying for another few hours before heading home at 8pm.
“Watching from the stands, it’s hard to conceptualise. This is a super-unforgiving sport: If you take one day off from the pool and you go back the next day, you can feel completely different,” he explains. “People only see you on top of the podium when you’ve done well; but they don’t see all the anger, all the frustration, all the points behind the scenes leading up to that.”
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Another thing many fans don’t realise: American collegiate swim meets are the toughest competitions in the world because of their gruelling schedule, which he maintains can be “tougher than the Olympics and the World Championships.”
Yet, Schooling is not a square who only knows how to train, either. In fact, he can personally vouch for Austin’s reputation as a party town, which it owes to its college population and status as an emerging tech hub. “I love Austin; it’s so much fun,” he says, before pausing to enthuse about the city’s famous barbecue (his favourites are Rudy’s and Salt Lick) as well as his go-to spot for “pretty legit” char siew and siew yoke (Ho Ho Chinese BBQ).
“It’s a very happening city, and I did experience that (during my college years),” Schooling says. And when a Singaporean buddy who has accompanied him to the shoot goes on a supermarket run, the swimmer yells after him: “I’ll eat whatever you guys get… But get tequila for afterwards.”
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“I’m a huge tequila guy,” he grins. But this world-class athlete knows when to lay off the partying. “You can do those things, but at the right time and place. If you’ve got a big meet coming up, you can’t. After a big meet, on the weekends, if you want to go out and have fun with the guys… We’re people also.”
So does he get recognised when he is out on the town or on campus? “Yeah, you get stares and stuff. But it’s sweet, and everyone’s been respectful about it. They don’t make you feel uncomfortable.” Especially so when it’s attention from girls, he hints impishly. But while he concedes that being an Olympian does give him an advantage (“I guess… yeah, it does. It does.”), the social savvy star also concludes: “You’ve got to really pay attention to what the girl is trying to get out of it.”
It turns out this is a perennial topic of discussion with his parents, Eurasian businessman Colin Schooling and accountant May Schooling, who is Chinese. “Mum and Dad drill that into me because they know I’m horrible about that; because I like to have fun,” he chuckles. When it comes to dating, “They told me just chill, be more aware and know the world isn’t as sweet as you want it to be.”
“If a girl’s agendas are not the same as yours, that’s when it starts getting tricky,” he notes. For now, though, Schooling is off the market—he has a girlfriend, UT Austin undergraduate Mikaela Martinez, who is American and a cheerleader at the school.
Be it in terms of relationships or swim training, Schooling sees his moving to America as an undisputed life-changing experience (he left Singapore at age 14 to enrol in a high school and swimming programme in Jacksonville, Florida). Coupled with the support of his family, his move has been invaluable in helping him mature, he notes.
“When I first left home, it was super-hard. I’d never been in the United States, one; and two, most kids in Singapore are pretty sheltered, and I was one of those kids. I never had to make my bed, I never had to do laundry, I had a driver drive me to school when my parents were at work, so I never had to fend for myself. Then you take all that away, hop on a plane to a completely different place, and go into a dorm where you have to wake up by yourself, do laundry, and get your homework done without Mum yelling at you. It was overwhelming at first, and the first year I moved to the United States was probably the worst year of my life—I was super-homesick and wanted to go home.
“I know, I was a baby,” he laughs. “But after I adjusted, I was, like, I love it here.”
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Being immersed in a different culture from the one he grew up in has been “a privilege”, too, as it has provided him with “a new perspective and new life tools.” This newfound maturity is perhaps one reason Schooling is so level-headed about being hailed as a national symbol, not to mention the level of scrutiny that it brings—evidenced, for example, by the harsh headlines in some local media earlier this year when he failed to medal in his final collegiate meet.
“The pressure is always going to be there and there’s always going to be people talking. But it’s your job, as a professional, to tune all that hate out. Some random person could be commenting online and, when I was a kid, that stuff affects you. But the older you get, the more you realise that the more hate there is out there, it means the more successful you are. You’ve just got to spin the negatives into positives.” And the star knows better than to expect otherwise as he continues with his career. “I’ve had more downs than ups, and it would be hard to find a successful person who has more ups than downs.”
“It’s all about learning that if you’re in a rough spot, you’ve got to find a new way of getting out of there, and just never give up. It’s a test of character, grit and tenacity, obviously; and some people are born with that. It’s just my personality: I hate to lose, so I do whatever I can not to lose.”
He credits his parents for some of this philosophy, as well as for keeping his feet on the ground. “My dad always says you’ve got to be an officer and a gentleman. Just because you’ve found some success, doesn’t mean that gives you the right to boss people around and think you’re better than them. And my parents have kept me grounded since Day One.”
Reflecting on that momentous day, Schooling knows his Olympic breakthrough will forever be a touchstone of national pride, even if he were to never swim again. He also believes it has had a psychological impact on Singaporeans, who look at him and believe that there is no reason why a son or daughter of Singapore cannot shine on the world stage. “There are talented people everywhere. Why can’t there be talented people in Singapore?”
“I think me breaking down that barrier helped a lot of people overcome their mentality of ‘I’m not good enough’. No one would’ve guessed a Singaporean would’ve won [gold] at the Olympics. And once you start breaking mental barriers like that, you’ll see more successes follow.”
Photographer: Yu Tsai
Stylist: Robert Behar
Model: Lana Zakocela/The Lions LA
Makeup: Paul Blanch/Opus Beauty using Sisley
Hair: Rob Talty/Forward Artists using Oribe
Manicure: Christina Aviles/Opus Beauty
Production: 88 Phases
Digital imaging: Luis Jaime
Styling assistant: Aquiles Carmona