What 50:39 taught me

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This morning, my Facebook feed literally EXPLODED with reports of Joseph Schooling’s record-breaking win of the Rio 2016 Olympics 100m butterfly event. And what a race it was! Definitely something I will remember for many years to come, caught up in the moment as we all were, Singaporeans at home and abroad. It was 50:39 seconds of pure adrenalin, edge-of-seat bated breath, lithe and agile movements and that euphoric win. Our first Singapore gold!

If you could beam a camera into every home in Singapore this morning, you would probably have seen quite a few families, likes ours, screaming for Schooling as he cruised his way to the finish line, and jumping for joy as he flashed that victory smile to the cameras. Come on, ‘fess up, I wasn’t the only crazy housewife doing a jig on the sofa right?

But celebratory dances aside, I must say that this has been one of the most heartwarming wins for Singapore on any international stage that I have witnessed so far. Many of us have followed the journey of Schooling over the years – from his emergence as a young child “prodigy”, that fiasco from the last Olympics games, the NS deferment, and the hard preparation for Rio 2016 – and if you haven’t, just click on the links to read more. Because of that, it feels like he isn’t just some athlete representing Singapore – he’s someone whose face is comfortingly familiar; he’s one of us.

50:39 was the incredibly short time he clocked for the race (a new Olympic record!), but we recognise that this is a win that has been many years and tears in the making. Thank you, Joseph Schooling, you’ve made us so darn proud.

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Dreams do come true

If ever there was a poster boy for this saying, Joseph Schooling could certainly be it. His was the dream of a six year old boy, who caught a glimpse of what the future could be and went all out to make it a reality. But innate talent and opportunities aside, it took a lot of hard, hard work. No article or interview can probably adequately capture the amount of sacrifice and struggle that goes into every athlete’s journey – not just for Joseph, but for Quah Zheng Wen, Aisyah Saiyidah and many others who are out there fighting to bring honour to Singapore, and for their families as well.

I wonder, for the many of us who say that his story encourages and inspires us, how willing we are to allow ourselves and our children to put our all on the line, the way Joseph and his peers have done? To say, “I’m all in” and hold nothing back, to give ourselves single-mindedly to a cause or passion or career? Even if it never leads us to be recognised on an international stage or receive any sort of acclaim or applause. To be inspired to follow your dreams is wonderful, but inspiration alone never achieved much.

Walking with giants

Just looking at the photos below makes me smile. Young Joseph meeting his idol in 2008 when the US team stopped off in Singapore for a training camp before the Beijing Games. … and some 8 years later, competing alongside this world champion, achieving an outstanding victory, and gaining his respect and friendship. Still somewhat bashful, but with the newfound confidence of a winner in his own right. I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering what Michael Phelps and Joseph were talking about as they walked off from their awards ceremony earlier today. Whatever it was, I love the growing rapport between these two onscreen.

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“As a kid I wanted to be like him,” said Schooling, who got his photograph taken with Phelps before his eight-gold-medal performance at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “It’s crazy to think of what happens in eight years,” Schooling said, adding: “A lot of this is because of Michael. He’s the reason I wanted to be a better swimmer.”

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What this picture showed me is the power of vision. Little kids dream big. It is us adults who sometimes rationalise on their behalf and teach them to think practical, prepare safety nets, avoid failure and downsize their dreams. And sure, there is a place for all that too. But there’s something special about finding that one thing to devote your life to, and then meeting someone who has devoted his life in the same manner and achieved success. To me, Joseph Schooling caught the vision when he had that conversation about his famous uncle with his parents at six years old, but that vision was given wings when he met Michael Phelps for the first time in 2008 and saw for himself what “success” could look like. And today, they shared the pool and the stage!

Parents, who are we pointing our kids to? Who are we holding out as benchmarks or role models? Our kids will find someone to emulate, whether we like it or not, but we can be alongside them to point out values of character and humility and commitment and courage in people – real people – so that they will sit up and take notice. And perhaps, they might find their true calling in life along the way.

What’s not shown in the picture? Joseph and Michael met again once more between 2008 and 2016 – at the 2012 London Olympics after the 200m butterfly heats. Less than 10 minutes before the race, Schooling’s equipment had been declared to not fit Olympic regulations, and the then 17-year-old was flustered by the issue and clocked a poor timing. One can only imagine the kind of frustration and disappointment he must have been feeling.

After the race, Joseph was walking behind Phelps, who turned around and asked “What’s wrong?” When he had relayed what had happened minutes before, the great Michael Phelps gave the teenager a hug and said “You’re only so young, you still have a long way to go. It’s a learning experience so keep your head high and just keep moving on.”

Later in a media interview, Joseph Schooling stood tall and stated decisively “Champions don’t make excuses.” 

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More than a crown

“I think this race means more to my family and friends and those people who supported me. I did this for them – when you do that, when you race for people greater than yourself, it really means a lot once you’ve accomplished what you wanted to.” – Joseph Schooling (source)

Joseph Schooling’s dream was not just to become an Olympic gold medalist, but to bring glory to Singapore and make us proud. (And he has done it!) Beyond earning a medal and the opportunity to stand on that podium, I think what enabled Joseph to press on in the journey despite setbacks, doubts and pressure, was the fact that his dream was bigger than just him bagging a medal.

It’s the same for the teacher who teaches wholeheartedly, not to make sure her class meets the required standard on the exam, but because every student is a unique individual with great potential and worth. It’s the same for the lawyer who fights for justice, not to make sure he wins the most number of cases, but because he grieves for those who are trampled upon and abused.

The best goals in life can’t be quantified in medals or merits, stripes or titles, but in something bigger and grander than ourselves. The best rewards aren’t tangible – they are felt with the heart.

Parents, let’s teach our kids to dream big, yes, but let’s also inspire them to dream bigger than themselves. Let’s show them how to grieve for a world that is reeling from devastation and loss, how to rage at the injustice in society, how to stand amazed at the wealth of knowledge that is available all around, how to care about people and situations far removed from our Little Red Dot.

Besides Joseph Schooling, there are at least three people who deserve a standing ovation – firstly, his parents, Colin and May Schooling. From media interviews in the past and today, I am personally wowed by their dedication to helping their son achieve his dream. Neither by coercion or slave-driving, nor by keeping him bubble wrapped in a world of harsh critics and naysayers, but by supporting him faithfully every step of the way, encouraging him to adopt a never-say-die attitude, and believing in him 100%.

“He wants it. I didn’t force it on him, unlike some of the kids here whose parents are the ones pushing them,” she said. “The passion comes from Joseph.” – May Schooling (source)

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As parents, we have the privilege of being privy to some of our children’s greatest dreams, fears, strengths and weaknesses. What an honour! It falls upon us, then, to be faith-filled, not disparaging, firm, not demanding, and motivating, not shaming. While the whole of Singapore is reeling from the results of this morning’s race, I think I have a lot to learn from two parents who have stood in the trenches and fought hard for their son to be where he is today.

Last but certainly not least – Michael Phelps. (Read this beautiful commentary.)

This man was the reason I actually started watching the swimming events at the games some 8 years ago (I have no affinity with water sports, or any sports in general…) – for his speed and his smile. The world watched as Phelps was dogged by drug and relationship scandals during his earlier years, but he got back to his feet, a feat for which he gives glory to God. But today, my admiration for Michael Phelps has gone up several notches.

“I’m not happy, obviously, nobody likes to lose,” he said. “But I’m proud of Joe.” He was in a reflective mood. “I wanted to change the sport of swimming,” he said. “With the people we have in the sport now I think you are seeing it.” He explained he wanted to teach kids “to believe in themselves, to not be afraid to know that the sky is the limit.” And that’s exactly what he has done.

“Just being beside him,” Schooling said, “walking alongside him and celebrating, I will cherish that for the rest of my life.”

After 24 years in swimming, he [Phelps] has found something he values as much as winning. Phelps is at peace, even in defeat.

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