It was the Wednesday leading up to Formula 1 weekend, and the massive crowd thronging the specially constructed Tag Heuer stage at the outdoor atrium of Ion Orchard was catching F1 fever something fierce. Or maybe it was the prospect of getting an up-close of Singapore's swim champ that had the masses in a tizzy.
Indeed, stars the likes of Aston Martin Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo, up-and-coming It girl and DJ Peggy Gou, and Olympic hero Joseph Schooling graced the venue as part of the brand's F1 celebrations. But as much as they were the guests of honour, the three ambassadors and friends of Tag Heuer were also the night's entertainment, with Gou spinning some sick beats from her DJ podium, while Ricciardo and Schooling had a cook-off challenge that tested their #DontCrackUnderPressure resolve. Imagine whipping up pasta on a time limit — which included proper plating for a judging panel of five to score presentation points, by the way — and pulling it off under the glare of spotlights, the scrutiny of the audience, and constant camera flashes. It ended in a tie, so both of them walked away winning but Team Schooling (which consisted of many adoring youths) stuck around to trail their idol to the Tag Heuer boutique where the swim star was due for a press meet-and-greet.
First through the door was Buro, where we scored some quality time with Schooling to ask him some of our most burning questions (like how many hours does he sleep a day. It's nine. At the minimum), as well as quizzing the young Olympian on how he's been balancing the expectations of his role as Tag Heuer's Singaporean brand ambassador with his swimming career. Entirely down-to-earth, laidback, and personable, here's the inside word from our nation's swim star on what it means live by the words 'performing under pressure'.
What are some of Tag Heuer's values that resonate the most strongly with you?
There are many things. Firstly, Tag Heuer is super sporty. Secondly, their company values are to be bold and daring. And the last one — which is also the value that sticks out the most to me because coming from Singapore, no one really expects you to excel or do well in sports, to be able to go on the world stage and to change the status quo – is that they always try to be disruptive.
Were there any interesting watchmaking tidbits you've learnt since you became brand ambassador?
I don't really know how to take a watch apart and put it back together, though some of my friends in school do. For me, I just love watches, especially the sportier pieces. I like using this [Tag Heuer Carrera] blue rubber strap. I haven't learnt any tidbits yet, but you know... in time (laughs).
Which Tag Heuer timepiece is your favourite, and why?
It's a toss-up between the Carrera and the Aquaracer. These are the two watches that really stood out to me but if I had to pick one, it'll be the Carrera cause blue is my favourite colour. Right off the bat when they showed me this watch, everything about it just clicked. It has a skeleton dial, which is another cool part about it.
If you could work with Tag Heuer to design a watch for your training, what sort of features would you include?
You're really putting me on the spot here! Well, firstly I would make it waterproof. That's probably most important. Secondly, I'd put a clear timing system, maybe something digital, on the bottom [of the dial]. That way you can visibly see your time. You put those two things together, and I'd say you have a pretty solid 'for swimming only' watch (laughs).
Speaking of swimming... as an Olympian, timing is crucial to your races. What do you do to shave off those few extra seconds?
You just gotta get in the zone. In swimming, it's like a few hundredths of a second. So if you shave off a whole second, you're doing something phenomenal. It's all about preparation: Your diet, your sleep, and your practice. Many, many factors come into play, and you have to excel in the moment. You train for a whole year for a 50-second race. You get one time to shine; you can't crack under pressure.
So how many hours of sleep do you clock?
I try to get an average of eight to nine hours of sleep a night. It's pretty hard with school but during the summer break, that's what I shoot for at the very minimum. Sleep is the most important thing. If you don't sleep or you don't rest, your body can't perform.
Do you still recall the first watch you ever had? Was it a timepiece that reflected your personality at the time? How has that changed looking at the watches you prefer now?
I think my first watch was a Baby-G from G-Shock. I'd like to say my personality has changed since then (laughs). Every kid kind of grows up with a G-Shock, more or less; I was one of those kids. But growing up, my family was also a huge Tag Heuer collector. We love Tag Heuer, and I'm not saying this just because it's an interview. My mum, when she first met Amelia [vice-president of Tag Heuer Southeast Asia], brought in seven or eight of Tag's collectibles — like, super super old watches — and some pieces from the '90s and early 2000s'. She has been collecting and keeping those watches for me, so I think it's safe to say I was surrounded by Tag Heuer growing up. It's kind of surreal, right? I grew up with them and now I'm repping the brand.
What do you look for in a timepiece for a casual day out?
I think a stainless steel bracelet is a bit too formal for me. I kind of do a crossover; like I said, I really love these rubber straps. My first watch with this kind of sporty strap was the Tag Heuer Connected digital watch, and it was an amazing piece. I love the red strap on it, and from then on I've always wanted different coloured-strap watches. In rubber, that is. That's probably the most important style feature for a watch to me. I know it sounds kind of shallow, but I love it. It just sticks out.
With today's social media age, how you cultivate your image is so much of one's personal branding. How do you then juggle, or differentiate, your various personas as an Olympic champion, a brand ambassador, and a role model?
Yeah, those are like three different categories, right? But at the end of the day, you need to uphold yourself and carry yourself the way you've been brought up. I have the privilege of having the best parents in the world, and the most important thing [they taught me] is having manners. My parents are sticklers about that. Like I said, different categories but you hold yourself the same way. Just because you're at the Olympics and you're racing, doesn't mean you have to be a mean person. You always have to be respectful, and that goes for being an ambassador or being a role model. You always have to treat people with respect. Sometimes you're tired, and sometimes you're cranky but that's when you really need to take a deep breath, take a step back, and realise that you're in an awesome position and you should never take anything for granted. That's how I feel genuinely and how I carry myself, as well as how I approach life everyday: Always say 'please' and 'thank you', and be conscious of how other people feel.
Do you feel you're at the peak of your career now? Is there anything you would have done differently?
23 years old for swimming is still very young. You hit your physical peak when you're in your mid to late twenties. So no, I don't think I'm at my peak yet. There's still a lot more to go in the future. Right now, I'm transitioning into a professional career and it's very different from swimming while in school but it's a challenge, and it's a new part of my life that I'm very excited to be taking on. It'll get better year after year, so yeah; I'd say I'm just starting.
Your schedule must be incredibly busy.
Yeah, I'm wiped right now (laughs).
So if you had 24 hours to yourself, what would you do?
I'd sit on a couch, watch some TV, maybe some Netflix, crush some chai tow kway and McDonald's — which sounds really good right now, actually — and just chill. Every day's been crazy with all the hustle and bustle. I almost forget what it's like sitting down.