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Reuben Joe Joseph
Reuben Joe Joseph


The man who 'schooled' the great Phelps

joseph-schooling-ap Singapore's Joseph Schooling checks his time in the men's 100-meter butterfly final during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Friday | AP

So Michael Phelps is human after all. After garnering tags such as 'Aquaman' and 'Poseidon's son', the Olympic Games' most successful athlete was forced to settle for second best in the 100m butterfly event. But who is the man who had the ability, or rather the audacity, to beat the seemingly indomitable Phelps?

Rewind eight years, to the time when Michael Phelps stormed to a mind-boggling eight gold medals at Beijing. Prior to that historic outing for the American, he met a 13-year-old Singaporean fan, named Joseph Schooling. Little did Phelps know that the star-struck admirer would one day deny him of his 14th individual Olympic gold (out of a total of 22 gold he has won).

Joseph Schooling, now 21, was born in Singapore. His mother is a Chinese Malaysian and his father is of European origin. After meeting his idol, Schooling and his parents decided that he would have to leave home to pursue his career as a swimmer.

His parents got in touch with Sergio Lopez Miro, a bronze medallist for Spain, who had begun coaching in Florida, USA. Schooling joined Lopez in Florida at the Bolles school, where the latter had been appointed head coach. Lopez was later appointed head coach of the Singapore swimming team in 2015.

Steadily making a name for himself, the young Schooling won his first international gold at the 2011 Southeast Asian Games (SEAG). Although he made it to the 2012 London Olympics, he failed to qualify for the semifinals. A dejected Schooling was given a morale boost when Phelps walked up to him, hugged him and told him to come back stronger next time.

His claim to fame was the 2014 Asian Games, where he won a gold, a silver and a bronze for his country, also setting a Games record at the 100m butterfly event. It was this performance that impressed the Singaporean authorities, resulting in the appointment of Lopez as national head coach.

But the highlight of the prodigy's career was at the 2015 SEAG, that was held in his own country. Schooling took part in nine events, won gold in each of them and also broke all nine SEAG records for those events.

At Rio, this time, Schooling not only became the first Singaporean to win an Olympic medal, he was also the first to qualify for an Olympic final. And a fairy tale finish it was to be, by toppling his childhood hero.

Schooling finished the race in 50.39 seconds to set the Olympic record, meaning that though Phelps had won gold in the event in his last three Olympics, the youngster beat those timings in his first Olympic final. Phelps ended up in a three-way dead heat for silver with South Africa's Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary in 51.14 seconds.

At the press conference after the event, a good-natured Phelps was full of praise for the youngster. He told that he was happy to retire with a memorable final race and requested the media present to focus on Schooling rather than himself.

This event was Michael Phelps' last individual race ever. Prior to the start of the Games, he had announced that he would call it quits on his 24-year career. Although it is possible that he could make a U-turn on the decision—considering he's only 31—he can now retire in peace, knowing fully well that his legacy will be carried on by a humble apprentice. It was fitting that this baton was passed on, in the legend's final solo race.

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