Singapore’s Joseph Schooling said he was happy to silence critics who dubbed him “foreign” after he set out his store for the world championships with nine SEA Games gold medals.
Schooling once attracted heavy fire in his home country as detractors assumed he was one of the “foreign talent” used to bolster the tiny city-state’s sporting stocks.
Matters came to a head at last year’s Asian Games, when his Singapore-born father recorded a video message to hammer home that Joseph was a “true son” of the country.
But sniping was replaced by adoration at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Singapore, where poster-boy Schooling starred with some devastating performances in the pool.
“Yeah itâ€™s great, after all I am Singaporean at heart and a 100 per cent Singaporean, no FT (foreign talent) all that things and whatever,” he said.
“So I am just trying to do my best for myself and my country and I am glad it turned out this way.”
The Texas-based swimmer speaks with an American accent rather than in the distinctive Singaporean style, and is of Eurasian heritage.
The fact he is a third-generation Singaporean was lost on some detractors after his compulsory military service was controversially deferred until after the 2016 Olympics.
The tide turned last year, when Schooling announced his talent by winning Commonwealth silver and Singapore’s first Asian Games men’s swimming gold since 1982 in the 100m butterfly.
When authorities were tipped off that Schooling, after his Asiad events were over, had left the athletes’ village for a night out, public opinion leapt to his side.
An official investigation into the incident ended a month later when Schooling was let off with a warning for going out without permission.
Now, with strong support and a hatful of medals secured in his home country, Schooling is setting his sights on tougher targets: the world championships, and the Olympics.
And if he has his way, the plain-speaking teenager will drag the rest of the Singapore team along with him.
“It’s just a small stepping stone to what I am trying to achieve. The SEA Games, I know itâ€™s a big deal to Singapore and stuff but I think a lot of the guys in the team have to look past the SEA Games,” he said.
“We are on a different platform right now than where we were a couple of years ago and weâ€™re going to have to start looking at Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and then slowly worlds and ultimately the Olympics.
“So I think we’ve gone forward a couple of levels so I think we should stop looking at the SEA Games as a benchmark.”