We all watched the race in which Joseph Schooling took home Singapore’s first Olympic gold. In an exclusive interview, his mother May reveals the family heartbreak and joy behind his medal. By Natalya Molok.
I can’t swim,” May Schooling confesses with a chuckle. We’ve been sitting in the Schoolings’ Marine Parade office for half an hour, chatting about parenthood, when this revelation comes to light.
I look at her in disbelief, refusing to accept May doesn’t know her backstroke from her butterfly. “Joseph was a water baby from the get-go. He would jump into the sea, pools and river; you couldn’t stop him,” she remembers. “So for me, it was like ‘I can’t swim, who’s going to save him? I have to make sure he’s water safe’, and that’s how I made sure he learnt how to swim.”
It’s curious to hear the woman behind Singapore’s swimming champ can barely tread water. “Well, I won’t drown but the most I can do is a doggy paddle,” she laughs. “Joseph’s father, Colin, is the swimmer in this family.”
May is refreshingly open and cheerful about so many aspects of her family. She reveals that she grew up poor, and even after she married Colin in 1983, she feared she would never become a mother. Joseph is her miracle baby, in a way.
A Tiger Mum?
Their son came late into May and Colin Schooling’s lives. Attempts at conceiving naturally were difficult and the couple suffered several miscarriages along the way. When Joseph finally came into being 12 years after they first tied the knot, May was already 40, but she was thrilled. “He was a miracle – and an amazingly easy baby!”
So is this why she indulged Joseph when he was a child? May ponders this awhile before she answers. “Initially, when he told me his dream of going to the Olympics, I simply humoured him. I never pushed him. I’m not a tiger mum,” she stresses.
“Since he was a child, Joseph has always wanted to compete professionally. First, it was ‘I want a medal’, then after that, ‘I want a gold medal’. He really just pushes himself. As parents, we simply lent him our support and encouragement.”
That support did not come cheap. May and Colin didn’t just devote hours to running Joseph around, they even mortgaged their home to pay for his training. It’s estimated they have spent over $1 million dollars of their own money paying for their son’s athletic training and education.
Still, the money spent is no heartache for a woman who says “I’m frugal anyway. Money-wise, we’ve learnt to balance out his expenses by budgeting. Everything is budgeted,” she says, gesturing to the smart trousers she wears. “These pants, are from Marks & Spencer and I’ve had them since my working days in 1990. So you can see how long I’ve had them.”
This saving streak was instilled in May since her youth, when new clothes were a once-a-year luxury only for the Lunar New Year. “As a child, I learnt not to put so much emphasis on material things, so I didn’t feel like Joseph’s expenses took such a toll on us as a family, because we don’t spend much anyway,” she says.
“Joseph knew he had a task
that needed completing, and we
believed in him,” May Schooling shares
of the initial tough times when Joseph
was apart from the family at home.
Sacrifices and Secret Formulas.
Time is much more precious to May, and she gets very serious when she talks about sending Joseph away to train. “When he said he wanted to go to The Bolles School in the US to train, I said no. He was only 14 at the time. But he said ‘Mum, if I want to go to the Olympics, you have to let me go’,” she recalls.
“It was a big sacrifice for us, and it was tough. The first year especially. I cried all the time. He did, too. Not only was he constantly homesick, but he also wasn’t used to having to be so independent.”
But whenever May asked Joseph if he’d like to return home, the answer would always be a firm no. “Joseph knew he had a task that needed completing, and we believed in him,” says May, adding that she tried to be content with spending just three weeks out of a year as a whole family so he could achieve his dream of winning Olympic gold.
When he did it in 2016, May and Colin – and the whole of Singapore watched in delight. “I was in the stands at the stadium, watching Joseph swim, and I remember thinking to myself ‘He’s done it! He’s done it!’
“I didn’t even realise there was a three-way tie for second place in the race. In that moment, I didn’t care about anyone else in the world but my son,” says May.
So how did she do it? How did she steer her boy to gold? “Oh, Joseph put in the hard work to get to where he is, not me,” she insists.
“Sometimes, people ask me ‘What’s your secret to raising an Olympic champion?’ I always say, there is no secret formula. I just tried to bring Joseph up as a happy, normal boy who enjoyed whatever he enjoyed… and I allowed him to enjoy it.”
Not content with this answer, I jostle her for more until she finally relents. Her response is surprisingly simple.
“We played. I found simple ways to play every sport with him, and it fostered healthy competitiveness,” she says before adding, “Joseph hates to lose more than he loves to win. That’s what makes a champion.” W
Photos: Courtesy of May Schooling, the Straits Times.