SINGAPORE: Swimmer Joseph Schooling got a rapturous welcome, a selfie with the prime minister and a four-year exemption from military service when he came home in triumph early Monday with Singapore’s first Olympic gold medal.
“Joseph, I love you!” a fan screamed as he emerged into the arrivals hall wearing his gold medal and a red jacket.
Some 500 people turned up before dawn to welcome Schooling, who set an Olympic record of 50.39sec when he beat his boyhood idol Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, in the men’s 100m butterfly final in Rio at the weekend.
The 21-year-old also won a four-year exemption from compulsory military service so he can prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Games where he is expected to peak.
Schooling already had a three-year deferment ending after Rio 2016, but his sensational performance made another extension a formality.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen announced he need not perform military service until after Tokyo 2020, wising him “continued success in the next Olympic Games.”
Only four other athletes – three in swimming and one in sailing — have received such deferments.
The swimmer, who will receive Sg$1.0 million ($743,000) as part of a programme aimed at encouraging school-obsessed Singaporeans to excel in sport, immediately hugged his waiting father Colin, 68, who was unable to make the long journey to Rio after falling ill.
They posed for a family picture with his mother May, 61, who was his biggest cheerleader in Brazil.
“Thank you, everyone, for being here so early in the morning. This is not just for me, but for all of you,” Schooling told the welcoming crowd.
In the afternoon, the family attended a session of parliament, which formally recognised his achievement and passed a motion congratulating him.
Prime Minister seeks selfie
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took a selfie with the athlete before the session and posted it on Facebook.
“Usually people ask me for selfies, but today I felt so proud to ask Joseph for one!” he wrote.
At 21 Schooling’s best sporting years could still lie ahead. Phelps is 31 and has only just retired after taking his record career haul of Olympic medals to 28, including 23 golds.
Some fans waited more than six hours at the airport to catch a glimpse of Schooling. Many carried banners, flags and homemade signs.
“This is a proud moment for Singapore and our group wanted to share in it since we’re the same age as the nation,” said Sylvia Chua, 51, who made a giant mock gold medal of paper and cardboard that read “Congratulations Joseph”.
Filipina Emmylou Almeda, who had been waiting since midnight, brought along a printout of a picture she took with Schooling last year.
“He really showed the meaning of hard work, which I think is a really great inspiration for my two sons,” she said of the third-generation Singaporean.
Schooling’s mixed European and Asian heritage has resonated strongly in the immigrant society of 5.5 million people, which had to rely on naturalised athletes for years to win medals at international events until the swimmer emerged.
Chinese-born female table tennis players won a team silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and an individual bronze in London 2012.
Singapore’s first Olympic medal was won by homegrown weightlifter Tan Howe Liang, who bagged a silver in Rome in 1960.