SINGAPORE, July 30 (Reuters) - As the biggest fish in one of world swimming’s smallest ponds, Singapore’s Joseph Schooling has set his sights on making a huge splash on the global stage for his tiny Southeast Asian nation.
Singapore has never won a swimming medal at the Olympics or world championships but the 20-year-old is the country’s best prospect to do so in years.
Schooling won a silver medal in the 100 meters butterfly at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Scotland when he finished just behind South Africa’s Olympic champion Chad le Clos.
A few months later he became the first Singaporean man in 32 years to win a gold medal in swimming at the Asian Games, beating the best from the region’s superpowers China and Japan.
Earlier this year, he completely dominated the Southeast Asian Games in his homeland, winning gold medals in each of the nine events he entered to climb up the world rankings.
He was able to dominate despite not having fully tapered for the meet and embarking on a gruelling schedule that he has no intentions of trying to match at the world championships in Kazan, Russia.
“For Joseph to come in, not fully rested and make a statement like that, I take my hat off to him,” Singapore’s new national head coach Sergio Lopez told Reuters.
“But for Joseph, being the best in Southeast Asia is not his goal. He wants to win a medal at the world championships and the Olympics.”
‘LOOKING FOR LEADERS’
Lopez knows what it takes to get to the top, winning medals for Spain at the Olympics, world and European championships before hanging up his goggles and switching to coaching.
He coached Schooling in Florida for five years when the Singaporean first moved to the United States to train with the best and remains in close contact with him.
Schooling now studies and trains in Texas while Lopez has taken on a new role in charge of the Singaporean national team, a job he took partly because he was impressed by what he saw in Schooling.
“We’re a small country, five million people, but if we work together we can be one of the best small countries in the world,” he said.
”The kids in Singapore are really hungry to be good. Everyone knows they excel at school and now that have a chance to be excellent in something they are passionate about.
“These kids are looking for leaders and Joseph is definitely one of them so whatever he does will help others.”
For the world championships, Schooling is ditching the lung-bursting programme he swam at the SEA Games to focus entirely on his best stroke, butterfly.
Although he qualified in other events he knows his best chance of success is to conserve himself, so he has entered just the 50m, 100m, and 200m butterfly, with the 100m his best chance of getting on the podium.
The eight-day swimming programme in Kazan begins on Aug. 2.
“He doesn’t need all those other events right now. What he really needs is to have the experience of fighting for a medal, at the highest level,” Lopez said.
”That’s his goal and while it’s going to be very hard, he has the potential and the mindset.
“Of course there are a lot of other people who have that as well so it’s just a matter of what’s going to happen in the next 12 months, but with a bit of luck he could win a medal.” (Editing by Peter Rutherford)