Joseph Schooling, champion Olympic swimmer and an inspiration for young students in Singapore, graciously participated in the first One World Leadership Symposium webinar. Held in December 2020, the webinar was hosted by three of our IB DP students - Janelle Rego, Rawsab Said and Kanish Alluri. While in awe of the sports legend, the trio were confident in posing a series of questions to him, curated from a list sent by their inquisitive schoolmates. Joseph answered each question with honesty and shared measured advice from his own life experiences. Watch the webinar and read the text below:
[Janelle Rego] Hello and good morning, everyone. And welcome to the first-ever One World Leadership Symposium. This is an initiative by One World International School where newsmakers and industry experts will be invited to interact with students for an exchange of ideas and experiential learning. Students will get a chance to interact with influencers who can inspire them to follow their dreams. In turn, students will also practise the art of conversation, public speaking, and communication for their personal development.
My name is Janelle Rego. I’m a second-year student doing the IB Diploma Programme at OWIS, and I have the privilege of being the master of ceremonies for our first-ever leadership symposium. We are going to begin our leadership journey with a special guest: a young, talented and high achieving individual who is not just the pride of Singapore, but also an inspiration for all young people like me who wish to reach for the stars.
Our guest was only four years old when he started an activity, that is normal for children that age -- swimming. But he was special. He didn't want to just learn swimming, he wanted to excel at it. In a memorable incident when he was eight, he woke up his father at 4:00 AM in the morning to go for swimming practice, and that was after only two hours of sleep the previous night. Needless to say, his love for the sport became his passion.
And by the time he was 13, he was already learning to swim for tougher competitions at a dedicated school in the US under the supervision of a world-class instructor. The rest as they say is history. And if you still haven’t guessed who I'm talking about, you have been living under a rock. Ladies and gentlemen, I take great pride in welcoming among us Olympic Gold Medalist, Southeast Asian Games record-setter, champion swimmer, and an accomplished son of Singapore, Joseph Schooling.
[Joseph Schooling] Hi, Janelle. How’s it going? Thanks for having me.
[Janelle Rego] Joe first qualified for the Olympics at 17 after winning the Southeast Asian Games in 2011 in record time. He became the only Singaporean to win the individual gold when he edged out his idol, 28-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps, to win the 100-meter butterfly race in Rio in 2016. He was only 21. So Joseph, it's really good to have you with us today.
[Joseph Schooling] Thanks, Janelle. It's good to be on.
[Janelle Rego] As you can tell, we are falling short of words to describe your achievements. But it's overwhelming to see how much you have achieved and in such a short time as well.
So before we move ahead, I would like to inform our audience that since we announced Joseph Schooling was to appear in our first-ever leadership symposium, everyone wanted to be part of the series to get a chance to ask him questions and learn from him. But of course, that was not possible. So instead, we asked them to share their questions with us. And I've handpicked a few, which will be posted during the session by me and two of my fellow panellists, Rawsab Said and Kanish Alluri.
[Rawsab Said] Hi, I'm Rawsab. I'm excited and thankful to be here today to talk with Joseph Schooling and hopefully ask some very interesting questions.
[Joseph Schooling] Awesome! Looking forward to it.
[Kanish Alluri] Hello, everyone. My name is Kanish Alluri, and I'm very excited to meet Joseph and would like to extend him a very warm welcome.
[Joseph Schooling] Hi Kanish, it's very nice to meet you as well. Thank you for having me on.
[Joseph Schooling] Yeah, that's a great question to start, Janelle. So I'll give you two instances, a positive situation and a negative situation.
Let's start with the negative situation. The first thing that comes to mind would be the 2012 Olympic Games in London. So I'm lights out at the 2011 Southeast Asian Games to book my ticket to my very first Olympics. I had high expectations, I was 17 years old. My dad has a saying -- the blind man doesn't fear the tiger. And jumping from the SEA Games level to the Olympic level on the world stage was something that I could not have anticipated. It was nothing I could have expected nor prepared for. It all comes with experience.
To make a long story short, as I was in the reporting room, the officials told me that my cap and goggles could not be used because TYR (the company) was going through some debacle. And I was caught off guard. I ran out, tried to find my coach Sergio, but he had already gone up to the stands to watch my race.
So I was thinking to myself -- I trained so hard for this, and it all boils down to this one moment in time where I wanted to shine, and I wanted to shine so badly. And everything just came crumbling down. And that kind of pressure I faced was actually a blessing in disguise in hindsight because that taught me to be prepared for everything.
Anything can happen, something so small like that could go wrong and could affect entire years and years of training. So that was the first time I actually experienced immense pressure. And I hate to say it, but it didn't turn out too well for me. But it set me up for a lot of good things down the line.
Now let's talk about the positive side of pressure, and let's use the Rio Olympics as an example. Same games, same stage, same competition, but things turned out a little better this time. And if anyone asks me what is the last thing I remember before diving in the pool, it'd be the bus ride over.
This bus ride was so special because it was 15 minutes long. It was night time, and I was by myself heading to the pool. I had this run down memory lane in a span of five minutes. From, like you were saying before, being 13 years old and going to the US, sacrificing everything; my parents especially gave up so much to put me through the education and swim system in the US.
And everything just boiled down to this one moment in time. What do you have? Are you going to let pressure eat you up or are you going to use pressure, turn it around and do something special?
So I understand that you all are going through IB right now, and I have friends going through IB as well. And I know that it's a tough time. You guys are put under a lot of scrutiny, a lot of pressure. But at the end of the day, trust the people around you. Trust your teachers, trust your parents, trust your friends. Lean on them when you need to, don’t be shy. And at the end of the day, you might fail. But if you keep trying, you're going to come out on the positive side.
[Janelle Rego] That was very sound advice. Hopefully, we can all apply that to our lives.
[Joseph Schooling] Yeah sure. So I train nine times a week. Doubles on Monday, Wednesday, Fridays for two hours in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon. And I have one practice on Saturday for another two to two and a half hours. And in between, on Mondays and Fridays, I lift weights as well for an hour and a half. So I'm practising in the water anywhere between 20 to 22 hours a week, and around three to four hours in the weight room per week.
[Rawsab Said] Honestly, that sounds like a pretty intense training plan.
[Joseph Schooling] Yeah, it’s kind of crazy, but the more you go through it, the more repetitions you get in, and the more you get used to it.
[Joseph Schooling] Kanish, that's a great question. So the swim-school balance is a very tricky thing to balance. On one hand, you're putting your body through a lot of work day in and day out, and you're smack tired. And on top of that, you come back, you've got to focus on studying for tests, writing essays, going for review sessions, the list goes on.
And I was privileged to have a great support system at the University of Texas, Austin. And without the college counsellors, academic advisors, and very understanding professors, it would have been tough.
Sometimes I'd have to miss exams. We'd be on the road for swim meets, and the professors would be very flexible in rescheduling testing or taking the test on the road. But they don't really help you with exams, you still have to study by yourself as you'll probably know.
So that balance was incredibly tricky and also took a bit of time to nail down. The best advice I'd have is time management. Time management is key. I understand that you're going through a very, very tough schedule with IB. Especially in Singapore, probably the most competitive education system in the world. And you guys are competing for spots, you guys want to be the best. And there's nothing wrong with wanting to be the best.
So, I'd say do time management and have a good support system. And you need to really budget your time wisely. You can have a social life, you need to have a social life. You all are teenagers in 11th grade, and I remember what it's like to be in that position. You need to go out with your friends, but at the same time, you need to take care of your priorities.
[Kanish Alluri] Yeah. I agree with that because, especially in IB, we have so much work that if we don't manage our time properly, we will fall behind very easily.
[Joseph Schooling] Absolutely. I don't doubt that at all. You've got to stay on top of things.
[Janelle Rego] Yeah, I agree with Kanish. It's good to have a good support system through that kind of thing.
[Joseph Schooling] The challenges I'd face would be lack of motivation. Getting out of bed at 6 o'clock in the morning and jumping into that freezing pool is not on the top of my list of priorities. But I have to do those things. I have to do certain things that I'm not super thrilled about and not very motivated for. But I understand by going through the motions, by doing certain things, taking care of things certain ways, I'm going to get to my goals.
So I think, to answer your question, the trick would be -- You're not always going to want to write this huge essay or study for exams or stay up late. But at the end of the day, you need to understand what your goals are. Where do you want to be in five years? What do you want to be at that moment in time? And I think once you're passionate and you find something that you really want to go for, the rest will take care of itself.
[Janelle Rego] That is very inspiring actually. I'm pretty sure all of us do have certain careers that we want to pursue. It's so awesome, thank you.
[Joseph Schooling] To ensure passion doesn't die, you always need to set new goals. You always need to re-evaluate your goals: where you are right now, where you want to be tomorrow, where you want to be in a year.
So for me, after Rio for example, it was hard to find motivation. It was hard to get back into the pool. At the age of 21, I'd achieved everything that I set out for from the age of seven. I had undefeated NCAAs, which is the collegiate nationals in the US. I was an Olympic champion and held an Olympic record. The only thing that was left for me to claim was the world record, which I'm still shooting for.
But for the bulk of my goals, 99% of them were done by 21. So taking time out of the pool, re-evaluating what I want to do with my life, where do I want to be? I felt like I still had the fire inside of me to continue swimming. I still had my body, and my mind was still sharp. I was still ready to go, but I was just missing that X factor, that final 5% which really defines you from the rest of the herd.
And it took me a few years to find that, and through a strong support system, good atmosphere, great people around me, I slowly but surely dug myself out of that hole to get back to where I am today, which hopefully puts me in the best possible position to achieve my goals at the next Olympics in Tokyo. So I would just say -- goals are very important in life. I'm a very goal-oriented person, a very goal-driven person, but the hows of how you get to those goals outweigh those goals in themselves.
You can set a goal of winning an Olympic gold medal, but how are you going to get there? Every day follow a routine of nutrition, wake up early, sleep early, rest, stretch -- things like that.
[Rawsab Said] Yeah, I agree with you. I think pushing yourself is really important especially when you've already accomplished the goals that you set for yourself previously.
[Joseph Schooling] Absolutely. That's a great way of putting it.
[Joseph Schooling] So I love to answer that question. I believe the answer lies in two different parts. Now the first part, which is the most important part I need to address, is your question of what role did my parents play? And obviously, I wouldn't have been here without my parents. But that statement goes so much deeper than how it actually sounds on the surface.
That sounds easy, we owe everything to our parents. But it wasn't until I hit 21 or 22 years old, after the Olympics, that being a bit more mature, I could understand the sacrifices that they made. Sitting in this position, I'm 25, you all are around 16, 17, am I right? So I can understand now what it's like for a married couple to live 10,000 miles away from their loved ones and have to commute to the US every three months back and forth for a combined total of four years.
That's really tough. It puts a strain on your marriage and your business, you sacrifice almost everything. It’s almost like winning the lottery. You buy a 40 number, and something happens, it comes out, but you don't know if it's going to happen. The odds are stacked against you. Now that kind of sacrifice -- it was a no-brainer decision for them. They had both feet in and were completely committed. Now that kind of sacrifice is special and beautiful, and I don't think we see that very often.
And now your second question. I would say from the lessons I've learnt from my parents, I would take 95% of what they told me. The first and foremost would be values -- your value system, your characteristics, your traits. What kind of person are you? Now my parents always raised me to be respectful, polite, have manners, treat your elders with respect and learn from them. And that's what I'd like to carry on and pass on to my kids.
Now the 5% that I do differently. We’ve learned from 2018 to 2020, the world as an ecosystem has really changed the way that we see things, the way that we go about our business. It has really evolved. And I believe in the last few years, I've seen that communication is key.
I believe for some parents in Singapore, especially those of old Asian heritage, communication with their kids might be lacking a little bit. For example, how to communicate, "Hey it's OK to fail, it's OK to try, it's OK to put yourself out there, because failing is part of life." Things like Thomas Edison said that he failed probably 9,000 or 10,000 times before he created the light bulb. It sounds cliche, but it's so true as you'll see as you mature and you delve into a different career.
So for communicating with my kids, I would do things a little differently. But for most of it, I would keep the base the same. The value system is number one.
[Joseph Schooling] My friends had a huge influence. Winning the Olympic gold medal was ultimately a fire lit by my internal flame. That's what I wanted to do, and I was the only one who could control that. Now, my friends as the support system came in sometimes when I just needed a break. You just need a break from swimming, you want to talk about things that are unrelated to swimming.
I'm sure for everyone sitting in this room and all of you guys on the panel right now, there has to be a time where you thought, “Why am I working so hard on this? I want to do something else, I want to go and have fun.” And there's nothing wrong with that. It's OK to think that way, it's normal. We're all human.
We’re allowed to think that way, but at the same time, it always comes back to what are your priorities? Where do you want to be? I want to be a doctor, I want to be an astronaut, I want to be a CEO, and be whatever I want to be. I want to be an artist, a dancer, it can be anything under the sun. But prioritise, prioritise, prioritise. You can be good at a lot of things, but you can only be great at one thing.
[Kanish Alluri] Thank you for your response, that's very well said.
[Joseph Schooling] Now that's the dream, Janelle. Once your passions become your reality and become your whole life, you don't need a reason to wake up in the morning. People wake up in the morning for a multitude of reasons, such as they need to make money, then they need to make ends meet, they want to prove something to other people, they want to build something. Now when those passions become conjoined with your goals and what you're trying to achieve in life, I think it paints a very beautiful picture. It paints a very bright picture and also, that's when special things happen. That's when the magic starts.
So to answer your question, I think life is a balance, and if you find something that you're passionate about and you truly love, you've got it made. That's where the money is, that's where the magic is.
[Janelle Rego] I'm now quite sure that most people want to aspire to that level to really achieve that dream.
[Joseph Schooling] Absolutely.
[Joseph Schooling] So I just want to start by saying Michael is a great guy. I remember in 2012, after a bad swim, Michael came up behind me, grabbed me by the shoulder, and gave me a hug. He said, “You know you're only 17, this is just the start of your road.” And at that moment, I was so upset and so angry that it didn't really matter. But once I cooled down and I reflected on that situation and that moment, it actually did a lot for me. It still affects me to this day.
So that was huge of him. And before my race in 2016, I wasn't really too concerned about beating him. I knew that I was in a great spot. I had a lot more in the tank, and in sports and a lot of other things in life, it's important to focus on what you're doing. Not what the person next to you is doing, not what the person behind you is doing.
Now if you're in a team atmosphere, that's completely different. I'm talking from the standpoint of an individual sport like swimming. So after I beat Michael, all I had in my heart was gratitude. The first feeling I felt wasn't happiness, it was relief and gratitude for all the things that we sacrificed. We'd come to this spot and we’d achieved something special.
So I'm just really grateful that he was in the same heat as me, and for all of his advice and wisdom that he's passed on to me. There was no animosity, no smack-talking, no disrespect, nothing like that. Michael is a special guy. I'm the kind of guy that gets fired up, and I'm not afraid to stand up to anybody, but with him, I would take a back seat and listen more than I would speak.
[Janelle Rego] That's a good response, and I remember watching the Olympics in 2016 and when you won, you two actually crossed over lanes or something and gave each other a hug. So I think that good sportsmanship is really important no matter what sport you play or in any activity in life.
[Joseph Schooling] It is. And to add to that, I just want to say one thing that you guys can go home with today. From a young age, my dad told me, “Son, you respect your competitors, but you never fear them.” And I think that that sentence, that phrase can be taken and be applied to anything you do in life. And if you follow that, you're going to go a long way.
[Joseph Schooling] Absolutely. I think the fear of the unknown is our number one obstacle. Human beings by nature, we're creatures of comfort. It's OK, it's normal to want to be in your comfort zone. And no one can fault you for wanting to stay in your shell or staying where you want to be. That's each individual's choice, and we need to respect that.
But I do think that the fear of failing -- the embarrassment of failing as well and what it looks like to your peers -- holds us back. The truth is, we are in a materialistic society and everyone is always competing with everyone, especially in a small country like Singapore.
Now that doesn't mean that we need to be selfish, that we need to be like -- oh, it's either my way or the highway, or it’s my word against yours. I just think that the fear of failing ourselves, more than fear of failing other people, is what inhibits us from achieving our full potential.
[Janelle Rego] Thank you for that.
[Joseph Schooling] So right now, not much time is going into training. I know you all must be thinking -- he only swims, like how hard is that? Just goes in the pool and that's it.
Since I've been here, I've had to cook for myself and clean up after. I know in Singapore, we live a very different life and we come from a very different culture. But when you have to take care of yourself and when we have to do all of these small little mundane tasks every single day, you start to appreciate the people who have done this for us for basically our entire lives. And it basically gives you a whole new insight of how actually tedious, time draining, and actually to be honest, quite tiring it is.
But on my off days, when I do have some free time, I love to play golf. I love to play nine to sometimes 18 holes with my roommate. Just chill out there and enjoy the sights. I'm in Virginia right now, which is a beautiful place. The mountain range and the weather, for the most part because it's snowing outside right now, are pretty nice. So golf would be one hobby, and just kicking back and watching some Netflix would be the other.
[Joseph Schooling] I think that's a great question too. So like I was saying to Janelle just now, fear is our number one inhibitor. And to overcome that fear, you need to find something that you're passionate about. My passion was swimming and to be a bit more precise, my passion was racing. My passion was stepping up against anyone and knowing that I'm going to beat them. That kind of mentality, that kind of fire was my passion, and it just happened that I was good at swimming.
So I would say -- find something that you really enjoy doing, something that goes so much deeper than just surface-level things, like making money or fame. I believe, and this would be my advice to you guys -- the pursuit of personal betterment is never-ending. And that's an open-ended statement.
But at the same time, if you think about it long enough, that should give you enough energy, enough fuel, enough motivation, enough reason to pursue and keep going, to keep breaking barriers of whatever your passion is, whatever passion in any field you have right now. So just keep getting better, to put it simply. Longevity is everything.
[Kanish Alluri] Thank you, Joseph. That's very valuable advice and I think all of us can implement that in our lives.
[Joseph Schooling] Based on character development and also foresight, I would say my father. My mom as well. But for the sake of picking one person, I would say my dad. He has this innate ability to not just predict the future, but recognize patterns. And in recognizing those patterns, you can almost predict what's going to happen more or less.
The older I've gotten, the more I've seen, the more I've been exposed to the world, I see that all the lessons my father has taught me is true. He puts things in a very blunt way, but that's even better. And everything he said has been absolutely correct. With life, with the world we live in, everything revolving around us, interpersonal relationships.
[Rawsab Said] Yeah, I agree with you. I think having someone really close support you like from when you were young and then kind of bring you up is like really important.
[Joseph Schooling] Absolutely. Parents and the family structure is very, very important. And I think that's something we need to embrace, cherish, and respect, and definitely not take for granted. I've definitely taken my parents for granted more than once, and it probably won't be the last time. But the important thing is to recognise that there's always a better way to do things, and it's human nature to have these feelings. But it doesn't mean that it defines us and it doesn't mean that we're bad people.
[Janelle Rego] Yeah, I think it's really important to remember who are our real supporters. Our families are like our rock. And it's so easy to take them for granted sometimes, but we have to remember that they are our true supporters through everything.
[Joseph Schooling] You mean in Singapore or in the US or just in general, wherever?
[Janelle Rego] I guess maybe both.
[Joseph Schooling] In the US, not so much. You might have one or two swimmers come up and recognise you, and that’s always wild because this country is a sports field country. NBA basketball players, football players, and hockey players are all huge and the list just goes on. So to be recognised in the US as a swimmer is very rare.
But in Singapore, after I won the Olympics, it was kind of crazy. People rushing up to me, taking pictures, just coming up to me. I think right now, four years later, it's evolved into a lot of people just staring. In Singapore, we all like to look everywhere we go, right? The occasional person will come up and take a picture. It’s always nice to meet new people and share experiences, and just be open in general.
[Joseph Schooling] I think out of all the questions, and you had great questions tonight, this is the most important question that you've asked. So throughout life, and I'm sure the teachers and parents can all agree, we are all going to experience fake people in our life, to put it bluntly.
I think it boils down to the world being materialistic, people being insecure. But to answer your question, the hard truth is yes. And we're never going to stop meeting fake people, which is why it's so important to have a small, tight-knit group of friends that you can really trust. Out of all the people in the world, if you asked me honestly, how many people I could trust so much that I'll put my life on the line for them and I'd do anything for them at any time, I would count less than five people. Just one hand.
You have friends for certain things, and you have close brothers and sisters that you would die for and friends who are like your family. And everyone else just comes and goes. And that's the hard truth about life. And that goes back to prioritising. Time is the most valuable thing that we have and all of you are going to experience this.
When I was your age, the number one thing I was concerned with was making money. I'm being very frank right now. But in my position right now, from my experiences and my growth, I've seen that the time that you give people is truly the most valuable thing.
So Janelle and for everyone listening to this, be wary with the people that you give your time to. Make sure that they're worthy of your time. Friendship is a give-and-take scenario, it's not all give and nothing comes back in return. That's just not how it's supposed to be. And you're going to go through those fake friends, but on the way, you're also going to pick up a lot of good friends, a lot of family, and that's something that you should never take for granted. That’s the part you should look forward to.
[Janelle Rego] Yeah, I feel like that's really important. Having good friends who will stick by you because in life. We all go through ups and downs and we need to turn to people to help us with that as well.
[Joseph Schooling] Absolutely.
[Joseph Schooling] Social media is massive. Social media has gotten a lot bigger than I ever thought it would. And it's only growing with new platforms and new users every single day. This is probably a very fitting question as well, coming off our last topic, which was fake friends.A lot of things that you see on social media are fake. They're doctored up, they're photoshopped, they're glamorised.
People want you to see what they want you to see. This is the part of their lives that they want to show you. But at the same time, you never know if it’s true. For example, you see a post of a person posing in a new car. Can he actually afford the car? Is the car on a loan? Is it his friend's car? Is it even his? But we really have this preconceived notion that, wow, this guy is really successful, this guy has a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, whatever it is, and it might completely be fake and untrue.
So social media has a lot of positives and negatives. That is the negative. The positive side would be connecting friends and family from thousands and thousands of miles away. Without social media, I wouldn't be able to keep up with what my friends are doing in Singapore or across the country in the US.
We should always be careful using social media, but at the same time, it does bring us a lot of good insights and new experiences that we could not have experienced otherwise.
[Janelle Rego] Yeah, social media nowadays is more relevant than ever. And I feel like kids our age and even kids younger than us will just be exposed to it more and more. So we just have to learn to adjust to that.
[Joseph Schooling] Absolutely. Just always fact check. Everything you read might not be true. So always check the facts, see if it's real or not. And then from there, make your decisions on how you want to approach the situation.
[Joseph Schooling] Yeah. First of all, I just want to say thank you for having me, and the most important message would be to find something you're passionate about. Keep breaking those boundaries, be comfortable being uncomfortable. All these things might be phrases or euphemisms, but at the same time, they're around for a reason. And the more that you’ll see, the more that you'll see it's true. So just keep your head down, keep working and be respectful, go for your goals, never be afraid to fail, and you'll see the finish line soon enough.
[Janelle Rego] Thank you for that. So with this, we've come to the end of our leadership series talk today. It's been a tremendous experience to hear from you, Joseph. By looking at your life and your career, we understand that success does not come without hard work, determination and a focus on our goals.
So thank you for being here with us today and for so generously sharing your time, your journey and your insights with us as well. I'm sure that many of our students will remember this time spent with you and will be inspired to set and achieve high goals for themselves in the future.
We will be having more such leadership symposiums in the future, so watch this space. And I would also love to take this opportunity to thank Mrs Dickinson, our head of school, and the senior leadership team for organising this event for us. I'd also like to thank my fellow panellists, teachers, and all my friends here today.
And finally, I would like to extend a special thanks to you, Joseph, from everyone here at One World International School for spending your time with us. We wish you all the best in your future endeavours, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in advance.
[Joseph Schooling] Thank you, everyone, for your time and for listening. Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, stay safe out there and hope to see you all once again sometime down the line. Take care.