Swim cap off, journalist hat on, Olympic gold medalist Joseph Schooling interviews his father, Colin Schooling, for our cover story this week. This writer takes a spectator’s seat and watches through my camera lens the delightful demonstration of mutual respect and affection between father and son. Childhood memories are reminisced, heartfelt words exchanged, and funny anecdotes and laugh shared. Oh, what joy.
In collaboration with THE CANARY DIAMOND CO
Little Joseph Schooling’s first word was a big moment for Colin Schooling. Even now, more than two decades later, he struggles to find words of his own to describe how he felt. As he relives this precious memory, his eyes—involuntarily trained on a distant scene visible only to him—produce a glint, his lips a gentle upward curve, offering us a clue that suggests feelings of visceral joy and pride, nuanced, perhaps, with the high of experiencing a new and rather profound emotion for the first time. In a sense, “Dada” was his first word, too.
“My heart melted,” he finally says, his eyes returning to the present, where his son, not so little anymore, is sitting next to him in a blue BOSS suit with an even greater accomplishment under his belt. Try imagining what he must have felt to watch Joseph win his first gold medal, out-swim his childhood idol Michael Phelps, and make history with a new world record at the Olympics (the Olympics!).
August 12, 2016. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 100m Butterfly. 50.39 seconds.
It’s a fine Friday afternoon in May. I am expecting The Schoolings at 4pm for this photo shoot and interview. The idea for this story is to capture some intimate and candid father-and-son moments in a heart-to-heart conversation. So, for a change, Joe will play the role of journalist for the day—he will interview his dad—and I, the role of fly
on the wall behind the camera.
At a little past 3.30pm, I hear someone utter, “they are here.” I look up from the outfits I am preparing for my guests, and voila. They are here. Way ahead of time, in true-blue Olympian fashion. Joe has just come from a press conference with Phelps, whom he is rejoining later that evening to hang out, in another part of Marina Bay Sands. I forget how tall he is from our first meeting/interview in November 2016. So is Colin.
“Have you waited long?” he asks. (They are early, mind.) Colin Schooling is a gentleman, through and through. Well mannered, well spoken, he carries himself with dignity and grace. He’s honest in a charming way. He possesses a great sense of humour. He’s comfortable with himself—at 71, you’ve got to be. And definitely paternal.
“Make sure it’s recording,” he says.
I am almost certain it is, I thought. But my face must have said the words.
“No, check it,” he admonishes, like a concerned parent making sure his child has her lunchbox in her schoolbag. As if to punctuate, he points a fatherly finger at my
Okay, he’s serious. I check it. Play it back. Yes, it’s working loud and clear. Assured, he settles deeper into the sofa to get comfortable.
The mutual love and respect between Colin and Joe is on full display once the conversation gets underway. They’re relaxed, as if no one is watching and there isn’t a camera in their faces. As the duo reminisce—Joe’s childhood, family excursions complete with a few embarrassing anecdotes and unabashed truth bombs, Colin’s own teenaged dream—and discover new information about each other, it becomes clear to me that everything he has ever wanted for his son, he has taught him by example.
From where I stand, Joseph Schooling is not defined by his accolades, no matter how awesome, or fame, or his national-hero status. He is well mannered and well spoken. He’s grounded, honest and comfortable. He’s got a good sense of humour. He’s a gentleman.
Joseph Schooling is his father’s son.
P.S. At the time of this interview, which is planned for publication on Father’s Day, I had not realised the serendipity of the timing of it all. Today marks Colin Schooling’s 24th Father’s Day. As it turns out, today—June 16—is also Joseph Schooling’s birthday. 🎂🎉
“All those years, your mum and I were trying to conceive, it was so difficult… When you came along, it was like a gift from the Good Lord. So, what did I feel? Happiness that cannot be explained or spelled out.”
— Colin Schooling
Colin: Okay, take it away.
Joseph: When you met me for the first time, what were some things that were going through your mind?
Colin: Oh, my mind just went blank. All those years, your mum and I were trying to conceive, it was so difficult. Mum had a few miscarriages, actually. When you came along, it was like a gift from the Good Lord. So, what did I feel? Happiness that cannot be explained or spelled out. That moment just grabbed me by the heart.
Joseph: I understand that my first word was “Dada”? How did you feel when you heard that?
Colin: My heart melted when I heard it the first time. Oh my goodness. Lucky it wasn’t “mama” first (laughs).
Joseph: Haha, or mum would have more bragging rights, huh? What were your hopes and dreams, and aspirations for me?
Colin: Just to be a happy boy, a healthy, happy boy. No aspirations. As you grew up and became a teenager, I just wanted to make sure you became an officer and a gentleman, you know? That means being well behaved, that you have credibility and good manners. How you conduct yourself, carry yourself — it’s very important, yeah?
Joseph: Yeah. So, what would you say has been the best and the most challenging parts about being a dad?
Colin: For me, it was very simple: Setting a good example (laughs.) My language can be atrocious, you know. I had to be very careful how I say it, where I say it. It was all about TPO — time, place and occasion.
Joseph: (Laughs) I think your vocab is spot on.
Colin: After a while, I learned to auto-adapt to TPO…
Joseph: Haha. That’s pretty good. I remember there was a time when I was a kid, mum would always, like, try to cover my ears.
Joseph: What were some of your fondest memories of my childhood?
Colin: After every swim meet, I’d always give you a shower. I didn’t trust you to clean yourself, to reach the places that needed to be reached (laughs). One time I was wiping your toes dry, and I said, “Oh my goodness, no wonder you can swim so fast.” You looked surprised and asked me, “Why, daddy?”, and I said, “because you have webs between your toes!” And you gave me this “Nooo, oh my goodness!” expression, haha.
Joseph: Oh my god. That’s a great memory. I remember you said that. For me, I’d say, all those times you and mum took me to swim practice, that’s one. Another thing would be golfing with you — those were sacred moments. And I think I’ve told you this many, many times that whoever golfs with us must be very special because that is our time.
I also remember loving it whenever you used to drive. I always wanted to sit in front. I always wanted you to drive, and not mum. I thought you were the better driver. (Both men break into laughter.)
Colin: You’re lucky mum’s not within hearing distance. But this is going to be published, and mum is going to read about it.
Joseph: Nah, it’s okay. Now I’m driving both of you, so it’s okay. But yeah, I always thought it was fun when you drove. I felt safer (laughs). Mum’s not a bad driver, she’s a great driver, but it was different.
Colin: Now he’s covering his tracks.
Joseph: But yeah, those memories were definitely my fondest. Also, going to East Coast Park to eat, at the Lagoon hawker centre. And I remember the first floatation device you got me. I also loved all those trips we took to Kuala Lumpur, bowling. I had my own bowling ball in Primary 4.
Colin: Oh! Yeah, yeah.
Joseph: I’d bring my own bowling ball, and that was like the thing we were looking forward to most. Do you remember that? It was in this hotel with a bowling alley, it was a bit old and run down, but it was beautiful.
“OH MY GOD. THAT’S A GREAT MEMORY… FOR ME, IT’S ALL THOSE TIMES YOU AND MUM TOOK ME TO SWIM PRACTICE, THAT’S ONE. ANOTHER THING WOULD BE GOLFING WITH YOU—THOSE WERE SACRED MOMENTS.”
Colin: Yeah, I remember.
Joseph: Also, the car breaking down on the way to Ipoh. That happened, like, twice. Those were always fond memories. I remember all of them.
Colin: There were so many.
Joseph: You’ve helped me to realise my dream in many ways, what about your dream when you were young?
Colin: I wanted to be a fireman.
Joseph: A fireman? Not a pilot?
Colin: The thing is, when I went for an interview, I didn’t make it. I was still in secondary school. And to be a fire officer at the time, you must pass your “O” Levels. I wasn’t even there yet, but I wanted to be a fireman.
Joseph: What was the best piece of advice you got from granddad?
Colin: Always be credible. Tell the truth. There’s a heavy price to pay to be truthful sometimes, you know, to say to somebody exactly how you feel. But that was the best advice I got from my dad.
Joseph: And what do you think is the most important piece of advice you could give me?
Colin: Just be honest. And happy. Be honest with yourself. Do not bring harm to people. We live in a world that has so much uncertainties. People are nice to you, but sometimes you don’t not know the animosity or jealousy they bear for you, which they will not show you. But never mind, as long as you live your life with a clean conscience and heart, you have nothing to fear. Like I always tell you, you cannot be
“Just being happy with yourself. I think that is success.”
responsible for other people’s opinions, huh? Whatever they think about you, they are entitled to it.
Joseph: After the Olympics, you had a ring designed and made for me with The Canary Diamond. What gave you the idea to do that and what features did you want the ring to have?
Colin: This ring is to be a family heirloom, and it will be in the Schooling family for many generations. Everything that is inscribed on the ring is for life. It represents everything I felt about the event, the Olympic record, every detail of the 100m Butterfly event is engraved onto the ring. This will be passed from generation to generation of the Schooling clan.
Joseph: My favourite part about this ring, besides the fact that it looks amazing, is definitely what’s inscribed on the inside (“With Love, Dad & Mum”).
The first thing I always look at when I look at the ring is what’s etched inside. This ring is going to stay in the Schooling family, for sure. There’s no doubt. Last question: What does success mean to you?
Colin: Oh wow. Success is being able to look at yourself in the mirror, and be comfortable with the image that you see reflected. So long as you can…
Joseph: Be happy.
Colin: Yes, see yourself and be comfortable, and be happy and satisfied that you have done no wrong to anybody. Just being happy with yourself. I think that is success.
Joseph: Okay, that’s it.
Colin: Love you, son. (Reaches over for a hug.)
Joseph: Love you.