CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Joseph Schooling’s story of winning gold is worthy of a Hollywood script. The Singapore-native idolized Michael Phelps growing up, only to beat him in the 100-meter butterfly at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Now he’s back, making his third Olympic appearance in Tokyo. However, some of the lessons he’s learned since becoming Olympic champion happened in southwest Virginia.
“I think that one of the biggest reasons coming back to here was just to get myself centered again,” Schooling said.
Christiansburg offers a sense of calm for Schooling, away from the spotlight that normally follows an Olympic champion.
“Tt’s a change of pace. A lot slower given Singapore is super quick,” Schooling said. “There are a lot of distractions around so the most important thing this year was just being happy.”
Happiness came in the form of a gold medal five years ago, when Schooling beat his idol at the Rio Games.
“I remember everything man,” Schooling said. “I tried to go to bed and I couldn’t go to sleep. The race kept playing on and on in my head. Everything, the parade, seeing my parents after. It was truly like an eight hour roller coaster that you just never got off.”
Schooling didn’t let newly found fame go to his head. Instead, he reunited with his mentor, Sergio Lopez Miro. Before heading to Tokyo, he focused on his third Olympics in Christiansburg, where Lopez Miro coaches the Hokies.
“In Southeast Asia, you have between all the countries close to a billion people that really feel that he’s a role model and a figure to follow,” Lopez Miro said. “He has a lot of pressure. He has a lot of people’s expectations on his shoulders and that’s a tough thing to carry.”
But by training in southwest Virginia, Schooling is able to keep his head above water.
“One thing Serg does really well is he keeps track of the big picture by being calm but at the same time, he doesn’t inhibit who I am as a person,” Schooling said. “Coming back here, being unknown, flying under the radar, that’s all the things you need.”
By being surrounded by other Olympians in Christiansburg, Schooling feels he’s able to push boundaries as a swimmer. However, the defending champion considers himself an underdog in the 100-meter butterfly in Tokyo, which is a mentality that he’s come to embrace.
“Just keep your head down and keep going man,” Schooling said.
And that’s a message Schooling wants to send to others who look up to him.
“Pick a goal, be positive about it, find something that you really love doing and just go for it. It’s just as simple as that.”
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