Joseph Schooling: The rise & fall of S’pore’s first Olympic gold medallist

Singaporean Olympic champion Joseph Schooling: His highs and lows

Known for clinching the first Olympic gold medal for Singapore and defeating American swimming legend Michael Phelps, Joseph Schooling was, at one point, the Golden Boy of the nation. 

His triumph at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro catapulted him to instant recognition among the general public and the establishment, earning him a Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) in a time when sports was not exactly the main priority of the Southeast Asian business hub. 

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, and then-President Tony Tan, who was present at the historic race, were among the ones who led the country in extending a hero’s welcome to the then-21-year-old. 

Source: MParader on Facebook

He also received one million KrisFlyer miles from Singapore Airlines for his achievement. 

As Schooling transitioned to a pro-athlete full-time in 2018, Hugo Boss stepped up and enlisted him to be its first Singaporean ambassador. The same year, he won two more golds for Singapore at the Asian Games, and even opened his own swim school, aptly christened Swim Schooling, with his mother.

But, as the saying goes: What goes up must come down. After setting eight national records — including six individual ones — Schooling stared down some difficult years. 

The challenges included the passing of his beloved father, enlisting for mandatory National Service (NS), and failing to qualify for important sporting events. 

Although he won two more gold medals at the 2021 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, which was held in Hanoi in May 2022, things seemingly came to a head when he confessed to consuming cannabis while training overseas on a short-term NS disruption.

Two years later, on 2 April 2024, the Olympian made the public announcement that he will be retiring from competitive swimming and will instead pursue other interests.

Two months shy of his 29th birthday, the ‘dream’, as they say, came to an end.

Parents spent S$1 million out of their own pockets & mortgaged their house to send Joseph Schooling overseas

Born Joseph Isaac Schooling on 16 June 1995, the precocious boy first took on the pool at the tender age of four

Source: @josephschooling on Instagram

His parents, Perak native May Yim and Singaporean Eurasian businessman Colin Schooling, have been hands-on with their son’s athletic pursuits from day one. Reportedly, they spent upwards of S$1 million, inclusive of loans, for his education and training from his early days in the sport, up until his Olympics win. 

After their son first expressed interest in swimming as a child, Mr and Mrs Schooling sent him for a bone age test to determine whether he has the growth potential to make it big in the sport. 

When he was 13 years old, inspired by the story of his grand-uncle Lloyd Valberg, Singapore’s first Olympian, the aspiring swimmer made the decision to move to the United States (US) to chase his dreams. 

In 2009, the Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) alum enrolled in a preparatory school, the Bolles School, in Florida.

In order to afford sending him to the US, his parents had to mortgage their house — an admittedly unconventional and risky venture.

Source: @josephschooling on Instagram

A year later, Joseph Schooling began training under renowned coach Sergio Lopez, who would later go on to become Singapore’s national head coach in 2016. 

It was during this time that he started breaking records ubiquitously, starting in 2011, first in a 4×100 yards medley relay, and then in the 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, and 200 individual medley segments when he briefly returned to Singapore for the National Swimming Championships.

At the Asean School Games in July that year, he broke his own records at the 50m, 100m, and 200m butterfly segments. 

Road to victory at the 2016 Rio Olympics marked with other achievements

His first big break came in November 2011, when he became the first Singaporean swimmer to meet the Olympics “A” qualifying time for the 2012 London Olympics at the SEA Games in Indonesia in record time. 

For that event, Schooling clocked 1:56.67 to win the 200m fly. On top of that, he collected the Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals in the 50m fly, 200m individual medley, and the 100m fly segments respectively. 

However, his debut at the 2012 Olympics in London met a hiccup when his swim cap and goggles failed to meet Olympic regulations and were thus rejected, causing him to fluster. 

Moments after he finished in last place, he put out a post on then-Twitter about how it affected his performance: “Disappointed with my swim. Right before I had to swim the officials tell me I can’t use TYR… thanks for messing my swim.”

That did not cause him to waver in the long run, however, as Schooling continued to dominate at competitions in the US and Southeast Asia throughout 2013. 

In fact, he was performing so well that the Singapore Government granted him a long-term deferment from NS — the first athlete with this privilege — so that he could fully focus on gunning for a medal at the 2016 Olympics.

After graduating from high school, Schooling enrolled into the Economics course at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. 

Throughout his freshman and sophomore years, he was juggling school and training for the Olympics at the same time. During this time, Schooling was training under two-time United States Olympic men’s head coach Eddie Reese.

The peak of the then-21-year-old’s rise came when he beat his childhood hero Michael Phelps at the Austin Elite Invite in June 2016, and again at the Rio Olympics two months later, drawing back to the beginning of this story. 

joseph schooling

Source: Getty Images via Glamour

The passing of his father, mandatory National Service & some lack-lustre performances signalled hard times ahead for Joseph Schooling

Despite the massive fanfare he returned to in Singapore after bagging the country’s first and only Olympic Gold medal, the coming years arguably proved to be the most challenging and, some might say, isolating periods for Schooling. 

In 2020, he extended his NS deferment, given the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

However, his performance at the actual Games was lack-lustre, as he did not manage to qualify for the semi-finals. This resulted in some negative sentiments among Singaporean social media users, who reportedly said that he was going “From Tokyo to Tekong”

At the time, then-President Halimah Yacob reprimanded these naysayers in a Facebook post. She wrote: “I feel sad looking at how unkind we can be towards each other.” 

Source: Halimah Yacob on Facebook

“One moment, we carry people to the highest pedestal with our words, yet the next moment we thrash them to the ground just because they fail to live up to our expectations.”

The backlash that Schooling received based on this performance could later be said to have foreshadowed the public response when he got into trouble a year later. 

In November 2021, his father and major pillar of support Colin Schooling passed away after a months-long battle with cancer. He was 73. 

At that time, Mrs Schooling described the late businessman not only as a “tough fighter”, but also “a loving father, a supportive brother, an outgoing uncle, a loyal friend, [her] husband”. 

Joseph Schooling later enlisted for NS in January 2022, but was granted short-term disruptions during his service to train when he had to compete for major sporting events.

Struggles peaked for national athlete as he confessed to using cannabis while overseas on short-term NS deferment

Later that year, he took part in the swimming events for the 2021 SEA Games in Hanoi, Vietnam from 14 to 19 May 2022 — which was delayed due to the pandemic — and went on to win two golds and a bronze in the 100m butterfly, 4x100m medley, and the 4x200m freestyle relay respectively.

Notably, this was Schooling’s fifth consecutive gold medal for the 100m butterfly at the SEA Games

joseph schooling

Source: Audrey Gan/SSC via Redsports

Things however, took a turn for the worse when, about two months later, national sports body Sport Singapore disclosed that the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) had investigated Schooling, who was 27 at that point, and fellow national swimmer Amanda Lim for the consumption of cannabis. 

Although urine tests came out negative, Schooling confessed to taking cannabis while on short-term disruption from NS to train and take part in the SEA Games in May. 

Consequently, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) stripped him of his privileges to disrupt his service to train or compete. 

Authorities issued him a formal warning letter and placed the athlete on a supervised urine test regime for six months. 

CNB also issued a stern warning to Amanda Lim for her actions.

Notably, all the key sport agencies — Sport Singapore, Singapore National Olympic Committee, and Singapore Swimming Association — had released statements condemning the use of banned drugs by national athletes

Schooling subsequently issued a public apology addressing this incident in a social media post. 

Source: WeirdKaya

He said that he “gave in to a moment of weakness” following a very tough period in his life. 

“I demonstrated bad judgement and I am sorry. I made a mistake and I’m responsible for what I’ve done. I will make amends and right what is wrong. I won’t let you down again.”

Sponsor Hugo Boss & others expressed public support amid controversy

Although he faced backlash from governing bodies, there were also individuals and organisations who have publicly backed the two athletes following the news. 

Schooling’s long-time sponsor, Hugo Boss, was among the first to voice their support for the Olympic champion

At the time, the brand emphasised its “strong and [unwavering]” partnership with the athlete, and that it believes in his ability to deliver on his promise to make amends and bounce back.

joseph schooling

Source: @josephschooling on Instagram

Law Minister K Shanmugam also called for Singaporeans to remember the glory that Schooling and Lim had brought to the nation, and to give them the fullest support, adding that they were treated the same as how others would have been treated in the same situation. 

Local swimming legend Ang Peng Siong also chimed in, saying that Schooling is “only human”, and is susceptible to making mistakes like everyone else, especially in light of the pressures and challenges he was going through. 

Olympian retired from competitive swimming in April 2024, will focus on venture capital firm & swim school

The next two years remained quiet on Schooling’s front as he finished up his NS. He then shocked the nation on 2 April 2024, when he announced his retirement from competitive swimming. 

“While I am stepping away from competing, swimming will forever be a part of who I am. It has given me a platform to inspire others to chase their dreams, no matter the odds,” he wrote in an Instagram post

The same day, he addressed rumours that NS had killed his competitive career at a press conference. 

joseph schooling

Admitting that he had difficulties when his service first started, he ultimately made the decision to retire himself. 

“Can we do things better? Yes. But, no, NS did not end my career, per se — I ended it on my own terms.” 

Speaking to MS News after the press conference, Schooling said that he will now focus on supporting early-stage start-ups through the venture capital firm Swaen Schooling Capital he set up with two other partners, as well as on his swim school. 

Additionally, he will be carrying out charity work alongside his mother. 

“I can’t go into depth with the charity work, but the only one I can say is that I’m an ambassador for the VIVA Foundation for children with cancer,” he shared.

“My parents love kids, and I think the love they’ve given me is testament to how they feel about them. To see kids go through what they do at that stage is tough,” he explained, adding that he hopes to do everything he can “to help them be more comfortable and put a smile on their faces”.

Not afraid of being forgotten, says Joseph Schooling

When asked if he is afraid that Singaporeans might forget about him after bowing out of competitive swimming, Schooling’s answer was firm: “No, I’m not.”

joseph schooling

“That’s a valid fear, but I can’t go day to day having that fear. Of course, it is nice to have the safe identity of ‘Joe Schooling the Swimmer’, that will always be there.” 

He added: “What’s really scary is forging a completely new path. I want to get to an Olympic Gold-level in my business career, so we’re basically rewriting this whole story again from page one.” 

“That’s the scary part, rather than losing my identity.” 

Retrospectively, Schooling said his highest and lowest moments — the Olympic Gold and the cannabis scandal — have shaped who he is today. 

“The highest highs are one thing, but it’s the lowest of lows that actually show what you’re truly made of … How you react is the true mark of one’s character, and not their highest highs — you’re living in La La Land if that’s the case.” he explained. 

Addressing people who might hold the perception that it was the drug scandal or NS that led to his decision to retire, Schooling said: “I agree that everyone has their own take on it and their own opinion on it, and I encourage it — that’s what makes things interesting.” 

joseph schooling

“For me, I want to say that none of these things played any huge factor in the conversation we’re having today. This was something that I felt intrinsically was right,” he added.

“Even with the cannabis thing, or my dad passing, the Olympics, and all the other hurdles we’ve had to overcome together, had I really wanted to keep on this path, I have no doubt that I’ll be able to make it work.”

Singapore’s first Olympic gold medallist’s story shows potential for country to discover & nurture more talents

With all the highlights and low points of Joseph Schooling’s sporting career laid out, it is not difficult to imagine the adversities he had to overcome to bring the Olympic gold medal and other achievements home to Singapore. 

At the same time, it is worth noting the immense amount of sacrifices that had to go into creating Singapore’s Golden Boy — sacrifices made by Joseph Schooling, but his parents, too. 

Did the pressures of living up to perfection break him? Was it the circumstances that paved the way (Covid-19, NS, and grief over his father’s death, for instance)? Or was the April announcement simply a natural conclusion to the super athlete’s career — one that was marked by a meteoric rise that simply could not be sustained?

Reflecting on all the circumstances that led to his decision, the athlete had this to say: “Everything in life is all about give or take and about negotiation. You make do with what you have. Even though I went through all these things, I still believe that I have enough to make do.” 

It is undeniable that his family should take most of the credit for Schooling’s glory. 

Perhaps this is a sign that more could be done on a systemic level to help discover and nurture the next Singaporean Olympic champion, or any creative visionary, for that matter. 

Whatever the case, Joseph Schooling is unfazed by the hullabaloo. He has his sights set on a new goal — and like most of his life, he’s going to achieve it, with or without support from the world.

“In retrospect, I definitely didn’t live a normal teenage life. To me, the normal kid’s life was to go to McDonald’s after school to chill and then go home to do their homework. On the other hand, I was in the pool. But, do I regret it? Absolutely not!”

He added: “My parents have taught me, and I’ve also been conditioned, to beat the norm. Now that I’ve retired, maybe I’ll try some different sports. Maybe I’ll go skydiving or something!

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Featured image adapted from the International Olympic Committee and by MS News. Photography by Shawn Low.

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