VIRGINIA -- Where do you go after you have conquered Mount Everest?
In February, he moved across the world, craving anonymity, and immersed himself in a swimming bubble in Christiansburg, Virginia.
Like most other athletes prepping for the Olympics, Schooling's schedule has been torn apart. He was aiming to peak this July and defend his 100m butterfly gold.
Now, he is looking to this extra year as needed time to re-find the form that saw him beat his hero Michael Phelps at Rio 2016.
"I'll do a reduced load until August and then start building again from September when hopefully this pandemic has subsided," Schooling recently told ESPN.com. "I'm tweaking the cycle now. It was definitely the right move to postpone the Games as to not endanger the health and well-being of us athletes and the public."
Schooling is an Olympian and a role model. He's a philanthropist and a businessman. And he's only 24. His 2016 gold medal propelled him to the adoration of 1 billion fans in Asia. He even had an orchid named after him. He can wait another year to show the world he still belongs among swimming's greats.
Earlier this month, eight bleary-eyed swimmers walk from their pool cars into Christiansburg Aquatic Centre.
It is bizarre to see Schooling in this environment, next to casual swimmers who pay $10 a month to use this facility with community at its core.
In the pool, Schooling thrashes out a couple of lengths, then presses the reset button. There are 15 elderly women taking a swimming aerobics class at the other side of the bulkhead. A banner on the wall above the diving boards is advertising "Mission Swimpossible," a swimming circuit class. Through glass doors at the other end of the aquatic center, two young children are throwing themselves up and down a crocodile slide.
But this is no holiday. Schooling trains 22 hours a week. There's no alcohol or indulgent foods. They're in bed, exhausted by 10 p.m. Then it's up again the following morning to push themselves, physically and mentally, to the wall. "You are looking at the same black line in the pool, day in, day out," Schooling says afterward. "You're just abusing your body, but at the same time, you find that mentally you're more resilient.
"The day I don't feel that burning, internal hatred of losing, or not doing what I want or think I can do, I'm done swimming. I'm done competing. But right now, I'm very happy to see I'm still a pain in the pool."
Looking back to Rio 2016, Schooling sees his younger self clutching his gold medal and intentionally playing down celebrations. He concedes he underestimated the mental toll an Olympic gold takes. There was a feeling of emptiness and the unknown afterward. He tried to go straight back to normal life, attacking the NCAA swimming for University of Texas. Then he had all the new commercial opportunities and obligations. And the fame. And a degree to finish.
"I should have taken more time away from the pool," he says. "I had to change my mindset as I was no longer chasing, I was being chased. I felt like I didn't have to prove myself to anyone, but I needed that chip on my shoulder to compete. I needed to find my 'why' for what I was doing.
"I remember chatting to Michael [Phelps], and he asked me a simple question: 'Why do you swim? Do you do it for the people in the stands? Or do you do it for yourself and those closest to you?' I think I struggled to answer that, and I needed to refocus."
After graduating from Texas in December 2018 with a degree in economics, Schooling moved back to Singapore two months later to immerse himself in a high-performance environment amid home comforts. But it didn't click. At the 2019 world championships in Gwangju, he finished 24th in the 100m butterfly, and he was edged out to silver in the 100m free and 50m butterfly in the Asian Games later that year. Being back home was not working.
"One of my coaches put it well," Schooling says. "She said, 'Being in Singapore and having won the Olympics, it's like the people own you now. Whenever you swim, or do something, they're all emotionally invested in you and that's extra toll.' You understand things better once you've got that.
"Singapore is always my home and I love it there, but I was always on there. I was trying to do all my training, and then fit everything else in and I was exhausted. It was taking all my energy away from the pool."
Schooling's weight fluctuated, which was met with derogatory articles and social media abuse. He was going through a journey of self-discovery. As he eats a plate of Bolognese (with green beans substituted in for pasta), he says because he is so in the public eye, he gets microanalyzed.
"This question over body weight has lingered over my head for so long," Schooling says. "In 2017 after I got third in the worlds, I put on another 7 kilos, I was eating three times as much as I felt like I'd have more power.
"I felt great at the time, but then I realized there was a very simple analogy behind why this was wrong. My heart's the same size, regardless of my weight. Swimming's a sport about efficiency. It's how you build the race and how you finish it. So, if my heart is pumping the same output at 86 kilos compared to when I was 79, then it's going to be a struggle, as I had the same engine on a heavier chassis.
"But until you've gone through all that s--- and back, you don't really realize it."
He pauses here, and then to put a full stop on this side of the conversation, says: "Look, everything crashed in 2019. I was a little sick of swimming and trying to fit everything in."
Respect, resolve, results
In February 2020, Schooling relocated to Christiansburg to again work with Sergio Lopez, who is the head coach of the Virginia Tech swimming team. Lopez was Schooling's first coach when he left Singapore for Bolles School in Florida at the age of 13. In that group alongside Schooling were Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy. It was an Olympic medal factory. When Schooling left to go to the University of Texas to train under Eddie Reese, he still kept in contact with Lopez -- his two coaches are close friends, sharing a room in Rio. Lopez's children call Schooling's parents, May and Colin, aunty and uncle.
"The most important thing Colin said to me back when Joseph was coming to Florida was, 'Sergio, I want my son to be a gentleman, to be a good person,'" Lopez says.
"I'm very happy that Joseph's here. He's working through things, more emotional perhaps than anything. His body's changed already. He's leaning down now -- so many things are familiar here for him, even though he hated them as a teenager. He knows this is good for him."
Lopez understands what Schooling went through after Rio. When Lopez won bronze back in 1988 for Spain, he was welcomed back a national hero. He celebrated late into the night on more than one occasion and was always questioned by fans and passers-by. "They always said to me, 'Why aren't you training?' This sort of thing," Lopez says. "I remember going to meetings in Spain, and I wasn't ready. I wasn't in shape, I swam bad and the newspapers would trash me. And two weeks later, I'd swim very well and they would put me on a pedestal. I don't understand that. That's a hard part to deal with as you lose ownership of who you are."
Schooling has been recognized only once since he's been back in the States, and that was at his local Chipotle restaurant by someone who was on the same swimming team as him at Texas. But he doesn't mind. His focus is only on the pool.
As we talk, Schooling's housemate, Yusuke Legard, is practicing the ukulele -- something he picked up to entertain himself in the evenings away from training and his full-time job as a simulation consultant. He's singing his new mash-up, which features everything from Lady Gaga to Queen to David Guetta. Schooling sings along.
"It's important for me to respect my training partners," Schooling says. "These surroundings and being around these guys who are so hungry to get to an Olympics serves as a test.
Like Yusuke, Schooling works his butt off day in, day out.
"He never complains or sulks," Yusuke says. "Outside of training, I have the luxury of taking a nap before practice and what does he do? He gets on the phone call, he gets on Skype for hours on end. And then he has to go lift weights and do the same thing as me after."
Blind man doesn't fear the tiger
We have just watched Chelsea beat Everton, and Schooling is purring over Billy Gilmour's performance. He allowed himself two hours out of the schedule to watch his team play, then it's back to preparing for his psychologist's arrival from Singapore to talk about possible mental hurdles he could encounter.
But it's the physical demands that consume his preparation, the thousands of hours in the pool and the calorie counting. "I like it when people say I can't do something," he says, laughing about how he has already been written off ahead of the Games. And then comes a more serious stare as he assesses the next few months, listening to what Lopez has had to say.
"When [Joseph] stands up on the blocks and expresses himself and knows he's done everything he could've possibly done, that's all that matters," Lopez said.
"I have my dark world, you have your dark world, he has his dark world. The hard part in life is how you balance that, without affecting your family, other people, while protecting yourself."
The most important thing, Lopez insists, is that Schooling has peace of mind.
"One of the things Michael said was, 'You know what you've been through, you know what it needs to feel like in the pool,'" Schooling says. "He said that feeling never goes. I know what that feeling is like, and I know the steps in my mind that I need to take to get to that feeling. The hardest part would be committing to it, right? Putting yourself out there and accepting and moving on from setbacks. We've had so much so many setbacks, and so many progressions already that ... I just need to keep trucking, just keep trucking."
With training finished for the week, Schooling goes off to play pool in his complex's clubhouse. Some of his fellow pros are playing poker at the table. Schooling looks over and assesses who's winning.
Schooling is a born competitor.
But he is also comfortable in who he is and that comes with a new definition of success. "I used to think success was winning. I want that internal peace and to step up on the blocks, each and every time, race-to-race, compete and go heads-up with the best in the world and ensure that I belong there."
He spent three years splitting his identity away from swimming and realizes he still needs swimming in his life. After Tokyo? Who knows? But for now, he looks at the pool now and sees an opportunity. "I love swimming, not because it gives me a chance to win and all this fame and everything, but I love swimming for a different reason. Now, I love swimming because, like I said, it makes me tick."
Still, these Games are a great unknown. Who knows what a one-year delay is going to do to his training? But Schooling takes it in stride. A year ago, this disruption would have created stress. Now, he is close to mastering his greatest challenge: himself.
Schooling concedes he won't be favorite when next year's Games begin. That will be Dressel. But Schooling would have it no other way. He revels in the chase, looking for another way to reach the summit of the Olympics.
"I remember before Rio, my dad told me, 'The blind man doesn't fear the tiger,'" Schooling says. "Which was a great way of looking at it. And I think I'm back into that mindset now."