Joseph Schooling lets out a sheepish laugh when asked what it is like to be fronting so many campaigns.
“I hope you’re not too sick of my face,” says the Singaporean swimmer, who shocked the world by snatching the 100m butterfly gold from American Michael Phelps – the world’s most decorated Olympian – at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Since finishing his collegiate stint with the University of Texas and turning professional earlier this year, Schooling has signed on as ambassador for, among other things, Singapore bank DBS, men’s fashion label Hugo Boss, probiotic drink Yakult and imaging and optical products manufacturer Canon.
“It’s been a huge transition, but an exciting one. It’s been busy and hectic, but I’m enjoying this. It’s also rejuvenating my career,” the 23-year-old says.
Swimming, he adds reassuringly, remains his priority. “This just adds to my feeling of wanting to do better in the pool so that all the boxes are checked: I’m happy, my parents are happy, the country’s happy.”
Ensconced comfortably in a sofa at the TAG Heuer boutique in Wisma Atria, Singapore, he speaks about the luxury Swiss watchmaker’s newest brand partner.
He is no stranger to the brand.
“My parents started collecting TAGs for me when I was a kid. I’ve got some of their diving and Formula One models. I haven’t seen all the watches they have collected for me – they’re in a safe somewhere,” says the swimmer, who is now the face of the Aquaracer collection.
Since one of TAG’s most enduring taglines is Don’t Crack Under Pressure, the conversation naturally turns to the weight of expectations.
The most unpleasant pressure, he says, comes from people playing coach and setting standards for sportsmen when they are unfamiliar with athletic training.
“If you don’t understand what you’re talking about, you should …,” he says, breaking off in mid-sentence to mime pulling a zip across his mouth.
An example? “Joseph shouldn’t be in all these ads; he should be training,” he volunteers.
“They don’t see that I’m in the pool from six to 10 in the morning and then going for another two-and-a-half hours in the afternoon,” says the world’s reigning 100m butterfly champion, who recently launched his swimming academy, Swim Schooling, for children.
Funnily, these armchair critics do not tell him these things to his face. “I wish they did, but it’s funny how they don’t. The only reason I know is I hear my parents talking about it or my coaches defending me.”
Although annoying, he says, it does not affect his performance negatively. In fact, it does the opposite.
“It just pi**es me off and that goads me to want to do better… I want to be the best and I want to be consistent. And I don’t need other people saying this and that.”
He shakes his head when asked if he is feeling any pressure about the 18th Asian Games, which takes place on Saturday to Sept 2 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
“Before coming back from the United States, I would say yes, but after coming back and seeing the guys train and seeing how far we’ve come, I’m not worried at all.”
In fact, he is confident about the Games in Jakarta.
“I’m swimming at least five events, but I’m not going to say how many gold medals I’m going to get,” says Schooling who, at the moment, is down for the 50m and 100m fly, the 50m freestyle and at least two relays. “All I’m going to say is I’m excited about the relays.
“It’s the first time in history that we can medal in every relay,” adds Schooling, who will be joined by US-based swimmer Quah Zheng Wen, who has won multiple SEA Games medals and also qualified for two semi-finals in Rio.
“The idea of that happening is very exciting. If we do that, it will be a huge stepping stone for the Olympics. How cool is that if we qualify for the relay in the Olympics? We’ll be among the top 16 in the world.”
Knowing that he will be under a lot of scrutiny then, he is priming himself for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“But I’m not completely focused on it now. The Olympics is a stepping stone, it’s a four-year process and you don’t go from 2017 to 2020, thinking: ‘I’m going to do this and this tomorrow for Tokyo.’
“Because if you did, you’d be missing out on two SEA Games, two World Championships, one Commonwealth Games and one Asian Games. All these build up to 2020. As long as you see positive progression and a positive trend towards 2020, that’s the best way you can set yourself up.”
A swimmer, he says, cannot be in peak performance all the time.
“Look at Michael Phelps. He got seven golds in Athens in 2004, but was whooped by Ian Crocker in the 100m butterfly at the World Championships the next year. He wasn’t on any radar in 2006, but he came back and set himself up in 2007. And everybody knows what happened in 2008,” he says, referring to Phelps’ historic eight-gold haul at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“Everyone has dips in form, but it’s all about performing in that precise moment. The Olympics happens once every four years. What are the chances that you hit your peak, hold it all together, from the prelims to the semis to the finals, and perform? Time is everything.”
He pauses when asked how he would like to be remembered, since time and legacy are intertwined.
“If people talk about me, I’d like them to say: ‘Joseph was a caring person, always polite, well mannered and, as my dad would say, an officer and a gentleman. That is how I’ve been brought up and that’s why I don’t believe in the prima donna mindset or taking things for granted. People don’t owe you a living.”
He breaks into a mischievous grin before delivering his parting shot: “I’d like people to remember me as a great athlete, a level-headed nice guy. Not a di**.” – Asia News Network/The Straits Times