Joseph Schooling, Singapore's first and only Olympic gold winner, announces retirement from competitive swimming

National sports icon says in Instagram post that he is 'eager to explore new passions' and see what the next phase of life takes him

Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling with his men's 100m butterfly gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling with his men's 100m butterfly gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. (PHOTO: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — A monumental sporting career has ended, as Joseph Schooling - Singapore's first and only Olympic gold medallist - announced on Tuesday (2 April) that he is retiring from competitive swimming.

In a post on his Instagram page, the 28-year-old wrote, "Today marks the beginning of a new chapter — I will be retiring from competitive swimming.

"While I am stepping away from competing, swimming will forever be a part of who I am. It has given me a platform to inspire others to chase their dreams, no matter the odds.

"I am eager to explore new passions, face different challenges, and see where this next phase of life takes me. Thank you to my supporters for standing by me every step of the way. I hope you will join me as I embark on this new adventure."

Schooling thus ends a glittering career that was so much more than his historic men's 100m butterfly Olympic gold medal. He is also the first Singaporean to win a swimming medal at the Commonwealth Games with his silver effort in the 2014 edition in Glasgow, as well as at the FINA World Aquatics Championships with his bronze medal in the 2015 edition in Kazan.

At the quadrennial Asian Games, he clinched three golds - one in 2014 and two in 2018, breaking the 100m fly Games records in both his golden efforts in Incheon and Jakarta, and adding a 50m fly gold amid his most dominant period.

He also put on one of the greatest feats at the SEA Games, winning nine golds and breaking the Games records in all of his races in the 2015 Singapore edition. In total, he earned 29 golds, three silvers and two bronzes at the biennial SEA Games since debuting in 2011.

"I am filled with gratitude for every experience that swimming has brought into my life. The victories were exhilarating, the defeats humbling, and together, they have forged a resilience in me that I will carry forward into my next chapter," he wrote in his Instagram post.

"Needless to say, I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to my family, coaches, teammates, and my supporters; your encouragement and faith have been a constant source of motivation throughout my journey."

Joseph Schooling (left) poses with his father Colin and mother May upon returning to Singapore after his gold-medal triumph at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Joseph Schooling (left) poses with his father Colin and mother May upon returning to Singapore after his gold-medal triumph at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. (PHOTO: Roslan Rahman/AFP)

Steady rise to the top after 2011 debut at SEA Games

Born the only child of Colin and May Schooling, Joseph was enthralled at a young age by the exploits of his grand-uncle, high-jumper Lloyd Valberg, who was the very first Singaporean Olympian when he took part in the 1948 London Games. May told Yahoo Southeast Asia that her son would take every chance to swim in the pool, and he also grew a big appetite for winning, taking on kids in older age groups with regularity.

After excelling in schools and age-group championships in Singapore, the younger Schooling made his national-team debut at the 2011 SEA Games in Palembang, Indonesia, and made an immediate impact. Not only did he win two golds, but he also made the "A" qualifying mark for the men's 200m fly event at the 2012 London Olympics.

However, his Olympic debut was one to forget. He swam poorly in his heats after swimming officials disallowed the use of his swimming cap and goggles, causing him to have to search for new ones just minutes before the competition.

That proved only a minor setback for Schooling as he continued his progress under coach Sergio Lopez while studying at Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida. He eventually enrolled for the University of Texas at Austin, where he came under the tutelage of two-time United States Olympic men's head coach Eddie Reese, who guided him amid his peak between 2014 and 2016.

Joseph Schooling in action at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Joseph Schooling in action at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. (PHOTO: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Crowning glory in Rio as he tops childhood idol Phelps

Schooling's greatest moment came on 12 August 2016, when he ended Singapore's 68-year wait for an Olympic gold medal with an extraordinary swim in Rio de Janeiro.

Facing his childhood idol Michael Phelps, he got off to a fast start and held on to his lead, swimming in an Olympic record 50.39sec to touch the wall ahead of Phelps, South Africa's Chad le Clos and Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, all of whom finished joint-second behind Schooling.

Feted as a national sports hero in Singapore, he received the city-state's Meritorious Service Medal in October 2016, and also had an orchid named after him in 2017. He was a six-time winner of the Sportsman of the Year honour at the annual Singapore Sports Awards.

Rio 2016 would eventually prove to be the apex of Schooling's swim career, as his swim times began to wane gradually. At the 2019 World Championships, he was given a wake-up call as he failed to make the semi-finals in any of his events. Then in the COVID-disrupted Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Schooling suffered the ignominy of not making the semi-finals of his pet 100m fly event, thus ending his gold-medal reign.

It was later revealed that he had been dealing with news of his father's ailing health, with Colin eventually passing away four months after the Tokyo Olympics. By then, Schooling had started with his deferred national service, and despite having to adapt his training regime, he still clinched two golds at the Hanoi SEA Games in 2022.

Then came probably his biggest controversy: he admitted to consuming illicit drugs - believed to be cannabis - at the Hanoi SEA Games, and was fined S$10,000 by the Singapore National Olympic Council for breaching its code of conduct in 2022. He was also given a formal letter of warning by the Ministry of Defence, and was not eligible for leave or disruption to train or compete while he was in NS.

Those late-career struggles, however, have not diminished Schooling's extraordinary sporting achievements, and his place among the greatest athletes in Singapore history is undoubtedly secure.

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