This Joseph is not that Joseph.
That Joseph who walks onto the pool deck in Rio in 2016 is “some kid from Singapore”. This Joseph in Tokyo in 2021 will be that Schooling guy who respectfully kicked Michael’s butt in the 100m butterfly. The stranger from then is now a familiar name across the world. Winning an Olympic race will do that. Life changes in 50.39 seconds.
From the starting buzzer in 2016 to 2021, the journey has been profound, and maybe no five-year span for Joseph will ever be like this. A lesson in ambition, dreaming, fame, pressure, rising, falling, all crunched into roughly 1,800-odd days. Then he had no reputation, now he’s a brand. Has a TAG Heuer round his wrist and is draped in a Hugo Boss suit. Let’s say this Joseph is better dressed than that Joseph.
That Joseph’s speed, relative to everyone else, was somewhat unknown to most Singaporeans and this one’s mostly is. Then he was faster than we thought, now, not ranked in the top 50 times of this year, we hope he will be faster than we currently think he is.
If 2012 was his first time, and 2016 was his great time, then this is crunch time. Are there any Games left in him? Tokyo will tell us if there will be another Joseph.
This Joseph is 26, that one was 21. You wonder when he looks in the mirror if he can remember that person. Then he had the looseness of a kid with nothing to lose. Now he understands that the Rio gold medal may have been only 500gm yet the weight of it is beyond normal understanding. He’s grown up, says his mother May fondly.
That Joseph ate in a college canteen in Texas, this one knows how to make chai tow kway. He, says his friend Teo Zhen Ren, takes care of himself, reads, doesn’t take things for granted, competes ferociously even in table tennis for every single point and has a minor degree in psychology. How the brain works under pressure is something he’s had to learn.
That Joseph had heroes, this one has learnt to be one. That Joseph so wanted to be the fastest, but speed comes at a price. You want fame, but you don’t know what comes with it. It’s not always you who changes but people around you. They’re never going to be in your shoes but they keep sizing you up. It’s complicated and demanding and messy and that Joseph wasn’t fully ready for it but this one is.
That Joseph won gold, this one has to had to wear all that comes with it. One day you’re horsing around on campus in Texas, next day you’re making speeches and meeting ministers. A 100m, no one tells you, can be the distance from nobody to somebody.
That Joseph just had to swim. This one has had to learn to shake hands, sign, pose, model, attend functions and still be fast. Then he looked like who he was, a student, now he sounds like a man who has had a wrestle with life.
Champions discover balance. They find out after they’ve arrived on Mount Everest at 21 that only a descent awaits them. They realise finding another peak and love for the grind is hard. They figure out Michael Phelps, golds in 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016 was an even bigger dude than they figured.
This Joseph is wiser but that Joseph was innocent. He hadn’t felt the sting of criticism yet. He might have seen how nations live, die, smile, scowl according to an athlete’s performance but he wouldn’t have truly understood it till the athlete in question became him.
That Joseph was sweetly cocky but this one is smarter. Life in the headlines – where every kilogram gained or second added is detailed – is fun only as an idea. His shape has changed across five years, he switched pools, tried out coaches. No one journeys like the athlete. He’s discovering that time is not just counted on a clock but on a calendar and it runs out.
That Joseph went to the Olympics in 2016, nervous, excited, a quiet contender. This Joseph is more peaceful yet still edgy. “It’s just a sense of serenity, a sense of calm,” he told us about how he felt now. “It doesn’t mean I’m not nervous. (My) being nervous just means I’m getting ready for the race, I care about it, that’s all it means. Just got to control that. But I do expect some nervousness once we fly into camp. And a lot more feelings going back to that village.”
That Joseph was hope. This Joseph is defending champion and Olympic record holder. If you haven’t savoured those words enough, then do so now. This has been the greatest sporting journey in Singapore history. In the thousands of Olympic gold medals awarded to athletes since 1896, only one belongs to this country. Think of it as a gift from a young man.
And perhaps, in return, as he goes to Tokyo, and we wonder about that Joseph and this one, and what he’s won and what he might have lost, let’s also remember what hasn’t changed.
He still loves swimming and he’s still got the same flag on his cap.
This is still Singapore’s Joseph.
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