This is how sports cultures are built, this is fun, this is an education, this is also weird. We usually get up at 6am to watch Lionel Messi skip like a stone over water and Dustin Johnson hit balls as if he was launching satellites, but now we’re rising to check our phones to see what hyperactive kids in American colleges are doing in the water?
Blame it on Joseph Schooling, who is so competitive he’d arm-wrestle your grandmother for a glass of water. Blame it on Quah Zheng Wen, who is all sleek, serious ambition. Both of whom raced at the NCAA Championships last week, in a short-course pool of too many turns, but still had our attention for the simplest of reasons:
They’re ours, they’re fast but, even more than that, they’re tough.
Toughness is moxie, nerve, mettle, grit and it will take you further than any fine physique and hand-eye magic. Toughness is the athlete’s engine and it can’t easily be bought at a Yio Chu Kang shop.
Toughness is Schooling, a trifle shaky in the individual events, finding the best part of his competitive self for his team in the relays. Toughness is him racing with a fever and upset stomach and never brandishing it as an excuse. When he lost the 100-yard butterfly to Caeleb Dressel, he said: “Even if I was healthy, there’s no guarantee I would have won that.” No champion likes to lose, but the best ones know how to wear defeat.
Toughness is the reputation that Schooling already owns for he’s known as the racer who switches on when the spotlight does. As Dressel effusively told SwimSwam: “Jo Schooling, man, he’s one of the hardest guys to beat I think in the sport of swimming. He has this ambience about him, he carries this confidence with him, he’s got that smirk on his face. You can’t beat the kid… He’s just a great guy.”
But for all Dressler’s acclaim, not winning gold in the 100 butterfly will eat at Schooling’s ego. His PB is impressive but you sense it will not compensate, for he’s not here just to go faster than he ever did but faster than anyone else can. He’s the Olympic champion, conqueror of the grown-up planet, and this is a college meet and he expects to win.
Except he wasn’t perfectly ready and he admitted it. “(Coach) Eddie (Reese) kind of told me this has been a long time coming,” he told SwimSwam. “Now that I’ve taken three months off or four months off and seen what it’s done to my swimming, I think the party’s over.
“The good feeling from the Olympics only lasts for so long. No one cares what you did a couple of months ago, it’s all about what you do now. I got my butt handed to me in this meet and that’s a huge eye opener. I can’t rest on my laurels any more. I can’t be like, ‘Oh I won the Olympics’… I don’t deserve to say that any more.”
This is authentic toughness and this was the best part of Schooling at the NCAA. He won bronze and silver in individual events and yet he felt he wasn’t at his standard. The gold standard. So he stepped up, he owned it, he told the tough truth.
To appreciate Schooling, we have to understand him. His world is not ours, for athletes live in a parallel universe. For 10-15 years they rise, breathe, hurt, with a single, obsessive purpose. Gold. When it is won, it is a relief, a joy and yet unsettling.
In 2012, a series of Olympic champions spoke to The Telegraph about the effect of winning Olympic gold. Hurdler Edwin Moses said he was “burned out”, heptathlete Denise Lewis spoke of a passing feeling of “melancholy” and rower Steve Redgrave noted that “suddenly the harsh reality dawns that the event you have made out to be the most important in your life is behind you”.
Some athletes sink into depression, others like Schooling are evidently exhausted and so his pause in training ferocity after the Olympics was almost inevitable. A fish temporarily tired of water. He deserved his rest but now his intensity will rise again because there is no wake-up call as confronting as the icy cold reality of defeat.
Toughness wasn’t just Schooling’s preserve for it belonged equally to the contained Quah, whose astonishing composure in his first NCAA meet has been revealing. He had to wait nervously for eligibility, was in a new college in a new nation, was racing in unfamiliar yards, and had to change his stroke count and underwater kicks.
Poseidon, god of the sea, was testing him but Quah’s response was a shrug and a superb swim which won him a silver in the 200-yard butterfly and praise from his national coach. Said Gary Tan: “Moving from long-course metres to a short-course yards pool can pose a challenge especially in the first year. But because he is such an adaptable and versatile swimmer he is able to adjust well.”
Quah will know that nothing lasts in sport, not even good days, and will build on his performance. Schooling knows nothing lasts, not even Olympic honeymoons, and will reinforce his talent with sweat. July is the World Championships and he will be ready because he has to be and because he knows how to be. In a beautiful irony, the toughest act to follow for Schooling is himself.
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