Esquire Singapore Man Of The Year: Colin Schooling
In the house of the father, comes the rising son.
BY Wayne Cheong | Dec 24, 2016 | Fitness & Health
Joseph Schooling’s Olympic win brought the nation to its feet, and his success is the result of many people’s efforts —but none more so than that of one man, his father, Colin Schooling. This is a story of the father, his son and the Olympic spirit.
In Ipoh, Colin Schooling sleeps.
It is a vacation with his wife, May, and his son, Joseph. Exhausted from an entire day of hitting the links and a dinner that lasted way longer than it should have, Schooling sinks into a hebetudinous slumber before a voice pierces through the somnambulism: Papa... papa. He rouses and the world rushes into sharp focus onto his eight-year-old son’s small and unblemished face. “Daddy, I have to go for training.” The clock blinks its red numerals on the nightstand: 4.30am. “It’s early,” the father says to the child. “I know,” replies the boy. “You promised that you’ll take me to the pool.”
The lure of the bed tugs at him. By then, the sleeping form next to him has woken up. May props herself up by the elbows, waiting to see how her husband will reply. In the half-light, Schooling regards his son. It is that moment that informs him that this isn’t a childish caprice. This is purposeful. This is the moment a father sees someone who has emerged from childhood.
Schooling often tells this story to those who are willing to listen. It is, after all, a pivotal moment, the photograph of the prized marlin that you show to people.
We are at the Singapore Island Country Club, where Joseph used to trained at, seated next to the pools that are devoid of swimmers. Schooling talks like how a father would to a child: at an even pace, deliberate. There’s the knowing glance, the raised eyebrows, the semaphores signalling conciliatory understanding, as an insight is passed over to you. Precious, wrapped in velvet, handed over reverently like a newborn.
His family history sounds like a radio drama: in the colonial days, his grandfather, who was part of the Royal Engineers with the British army, was excommunicated because he married a local Portuguese-Eurasian woman. His father was a customs officer but, during a pursuit of smugglers, he was fired upon. “He just got married and couldn’t afford to die,” Schooling says with a chuckle. “So he became a cable engineer.”
The family of two eventually swelled to nine, with five boys and two girls. Not only was Colin Schooling’s father the sole breadwinner, but also a scouter who established the Sarimbun Scout Camp. Look at any books about scouting in Singapore and you’ll see his scouting handle, “Lone Wolf”. Inside are some of his drawings from his lessons in draftsmanship.
Schooling and his brothers were taught survival skills. They’d hunt for flying foxes, sometimes with shotguns (“My uncles would use a .22, y’know”). Schooling reckons that if you were to drop him in the middle of the jungle today, he would survive.
There is also a strict moral code that the family stuck to. “My father taught us how to be an officer and a gentleman,” Schooling says. “If we ever raised our hands to our sisters, [my father] would belt us. Even if they criticised or teased you, you never hit them.” He would apply these principles and more to Joseph.
Before he flew to Rio, his last words to his son were: “stun the world”. Joseph did not fail in that regard with a new world record in a time of 50.39 seconds. After all, the signs were there: he beat Michael Phelps twice before the Olympics; first at the men’s 100m butterfly event during the Longhorns Elite Invite meet at Austin, Texas (clocked at 51.58 seconds) and the other was during the Rio Olympics semi-finals.
But this wasn’t about beating Phelps; in what is considered a nice turn on an anecdote; the American Olympian visited the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC) in 2008, where Joseph was training at. In an act of posterity, Joseph took a photo next to his hero.
“He said that racing with Michael,” Schooling says. “is a privilege. A privilege to swim with the best in the world.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Joseph was 17 when he first swam with Phelps at the 2012 London Olympics. Sadly, he did not qualify for the semi-finals after he was rattled by the swimming officials disallowing the use of his swimming cap and goggles.
Oddly, the Singapore contingent once again faced issue about their swim caps in 2014 at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. The logo and wording on their swim caps did not meet the regulatory sizing and had to be replaced. Out of the 11 swimmers in the contingent, only Joseph’s swim cap passed muster. His was the only one that had the Singapore flag emblazoned on it.
Like his son, Schooling does not leave things to chance. There is a video taken with a smartphone of Schooling watching the live 100m butterfly race at the Rio Olympics. Colin Schooling is surrounded by family and friends. (May wasn’t present as she was in Rio.) The Singapore flag hangs to the side. When the race kicks off, the crowd bursts into cheers save for Schooling who is quiet and transfixed by the screen, oblivious to the cacophony around him. Joseph has a lead on Phelps and it looks like he has the game in the bag as the crowd explodes into unbridled joy.
Schooling is speechless. He offers an explanation for his dumbstruck reaction: “I was amazed by his lead, but it’s never over until he touches the wall with two hands. When the OR (Olympic Record) appeared, only then, was I relieved. Relieved because the pent-up stress I had was unbelievable.”
Schooling points to the faded bleached spots on his face and says, “That’s why I got vitiligo and psoriasis… and I’m not blaming Joseph for that; I’m just a worrywart by nature. It’s my personality—being a perfectionist contributed to the stress.”
Joseph started swimming at the Tanah Merah Country Club at four. At five, he competed, and, a year later, Schooling was advised to send his son to another club where the environment would be more conducive to his development. There’s also the willingness of the child to account for.
“I’ve seen kids at the club who don’t want to be there,” Schooling says. “I bring this up to their parents and they say that they know what’s best for their kids. Okay, fine. But parents need to be sensitive to the needs of their kids or else how the hell do you want them to perform?”
So, he brought Joseph to the Singapore Island Country Club, where the coach at the time noted how strong he was at the kickboard, how strong he was that he broke all of the club’s swim records. Register him, the coach tells Schooling. This guy has potential.
Schooling started cataloguing the results from all Joseph’s competitions and swim meets. From the day he started swimming to the day he left Singapore’s shores, Schooling has the data; there’s a pattern that he can identify. There were also others who contributed to Joseph’s progress like aquatic scientist, Forbes Carlile (who passed away prior to the Olympics), and his wife, Ursula.
But it wasn’t just the techniques that were crucial to Joseph’s success. It was also the people that he mixed around with, as exemplified by a saying, trapped in Plexiglas in Schooling’s office: “It is difficult to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys.” It sounds funny, but Schooling lives by that.
“If you’re surrounded by all your teammates who want to do well, then you’ve created an atmosphere of competitiveness— in a camaraderie manner, not dog-eat-dog, mind you. When he was in high school, he never said that he wanted a silver or that he didn’t mind a bronze. He wanted the gold. I asked, ‘What if you got a silver or a bronze?’ And he said, ‘If he’s better than me, so be it... but nobody remembers a silver or a bronze. 'They only remember the guy who won gold.’”
Like the intrinsic nature of the allure of gold, Joseph’s win brought with it attention, both good and unwanted. People praised Schooling’s efforts. People were critical of the lack of support in Joseph’s training. Corporations reached out with an open palm and congratulatory smiles. Some claimed credit for his achievements.
“Some friends of mine asked, ‘How can they do this?’ And all I can say is: please stop it. Let us rejoice as a nation. Whatever you claim or say, it doesn’t hurt anybody. It doesn’t hurt me for sure.”
Schooling understands that these sorts of things happen. He can’t be responsible for people’s opinion. Why should he lose sleep over something that he has no control over? The only thing that’s important is that Schooling knows what they did, what they do, and no one can take that away from them.
Their son came late into May and Schooling’s lives. They tried hard to conceive—going for IVF, suffering a few miscarriages— but when Joseph came along, it was a miracle. That is why Schooling wants to make sure that no harm comes to him.
“He is my priority. When I take care of Joseph,” Schooling says, “he will serve the country. He has made our national anthem be heard on the world stage at the Olympics. You don’t need a grand vision. Take care of what you have now and, soon, it will add up to the bigger picture.”
Schooling is appreciative of the kind words and congratulations, but he’s not going to wait around for handouts. Again, there is embedded code in him. He won’t beg for support.
“If you feel that my family deserved it, then you’ll do what’s necessary. But I’ve taken my son away and exposed him to what I believed to be the best training for him,” Schooling says. “He has proven that what we’ve taught is correct because of that independence. I’m not the type to rely on your opinion because you should see the collection of data that I amassed before this decision was made.”
Schooling’s eyes brim with kindness. The edges of them crinkle when he smiles and the rosy tint to his cheeks looks like he has stolen away a glass of port. It makes him look genial, grandfatherly even, thanks to the silver in his carefully combed hair. He can be gentle, yes, but his voice can rise and quicken, his cheeks glow a brighter shade of amber. It is anger. Brought about by years of frustrating roadblocks.
“If you guys are going to promote high performance, why are you not showing the live telecast of the Olympics? We have some talented athletes in Singapore and, if you don’t want to nurture it, why the hell are we practising so hard? Joseph mentioned that we must aim beyond the SEA Games. Don’t go bragging, saying you got these many golds. And I say this with no malice, but I just want our guys to be realistic. If our coaches here are lacking, engage others out of the country. Get the world’s best. We have to seek knowledge. You think Joseph was an accident that happened? If I didn’t log all his swim meets, do you think I wouldn’t have seen [an indication that my son has the potential to be great], to put my money where my mouth is?”
The ire quickly dissipates, like trapping fire in a bottle so quick that it dies out from the lack of oxygen. Wrath on a tugged leash.
Calmly, Schooling adds: “I do think people are beginning to take note. I also feel and think the various sporting bodies in Singapore are trying hard to meet these expectations.”
Then he breaks into an easy smile. “I’m blunt and straightforward. I just say it the way it is. Some like it; some don’t. Like I said, I can’t be responsible for other people’s opinion.” Beat. “That’s why I like Clint Eastwood’s style: ‘Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.’ I love those words,” he says with a laugh.
There were other architects to Joseph’s success. His mother, May, contributed tremendously. She made sure that, as a baby, Joseph ate his greens. (“Joseph could walk when he was nine months, very strong.”) She also dealt with Schooling’s bull-headed approach to things. Schooling looks almost embarrassed by the admission.
But the parents of the Olympic champion have to make sacrifices. Schooling jokes that, since Joseph is stationed overseas, one of them has to travel while the other remains in Singapore to run the business.
“When you talk about priests going through celibacy, do you think May and I aren’t affected?” Schooling laughs, but Joseph’s absence does take a toll on him. “I told May that either he comes or we’ll go over there, because I’m not going to grow old without being with my son. He came late in my life and I just want to be with him. I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery. I don’t care if I’ve no money or assets.”
“I only regret that I don’t have more children. My God, I’d love to have a daughter, give Joseph a sister. But no regrets whatsoever.”
When questioned if he ever thought of just throwing in the towel, Schooling takes a while to collect his thoughts. Finally, he looks up and says that the moment Joseph moved to the US, they had crossed the Rubicon. Schooling continues: “I told Joseph—and this is the Singaporean part of me—he needs to finish his education. You can be a swimmer with a gold medal and a world record, but you can’t keep this up all your life. You need to finish your studies. Your time is limited. After [the Tokyo Olympics in 2020], you need to return home to do your National Service.”
It is a regimented life for an athlete, especially one who is an Olympic gold medallist. Each day, each lap, any opportunity where Joseph is training, is another step in improvement. Singapore’s statutory requirement for enlistment into the army will dash all that. Every moment that Joseph isn’t working out, the beneficial effects from training will disappear. This is called the Reversibility Principle. Out of the waters and into the uniform, Joseph will lose muscle; his oxygen intake will deteriorate. He’ll lose speed. In short, his swimming career will be over.
That is why, when the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) granted Joseph a deferment from conscription, it felt like a reprieve. “I fought hard for that,” Schooling says. “I went to meet MINDEF to present my case and they have their own people to vouch for me. Thank God MINDEF has been receptive to this.”
And if they had said no?
Schooling looks at me. A smile playing at the corner of his lips. “I wouldn’t want to say. I’ll leave that to your imagination.”
At the end of the day, Schooling’s needs are simple: he wants to be happy and content. He looks to the future where the wheel slowly turns and Joseph himself will have his own offspring and dedicate himself to them in the same way that his father did to him. Schooling’s love for his son is all-encompassing. It is large. It swallows the sun and dwarfs the universe. He loves him and will gladly sacrifice his life for him.
And sometimes, that is all that matters.
“I hope,” Schooling says in a tone that can only be described as wistful, “I can keep up with his training for a few more years. So far, the good Lord has taken care of me.
“I may be blunt sometimes, but... but I know where my heart is.”
Grooming by Sha Shamsi using Tom Ford and La Biosthetique. Stylist assisted by Tan Guan Lin. Make-up artist assisted by Zoel T.
First published in Esquire Singapore's December 2016 issue.