A hug meant so much to Colin and Joseph Schooling
Singapore's only Olympic champion shared a special bond with his late father
Just after the Olympics in August, Colin Schooling sent a WhatsApp message to my wife.
It was an emotional one-liner: "I just want to hug my son."
When it happened, it was a touching moment for father and son Joseph, who had just completed a 14-day quarantine after his return from Tokyo.
Fast forward to Oct 18, Colin said in another message: "I'm fine as can be!! I have abstained from communicating with anyone, as I just need to heal alone and find solace within myself."
The man who was known to be full of life had decided to seek solitude after being numbed by liver cancer.
Colin died last Thursday, with only loving wife May and Joseph at his Singapore General Hospital bedside due to Covid-19 restrictions.
An animated life of 73 years, blessed with happiness, excitement and fun but dotted with disappointment, had come to a grieving end. On hearing the news, many Singaporeans cried and sent May and Joseph messages of condolences.
However, they found solace in the fact that Colin had achieved his biggest dream: that of turning Joseph into an Olympic swimming champion, a world-beater.
Understandably, struck by the sad news, crowds thronged his Marine Parade residence for four days for the wake. Ministers and MPs came to pay their respects, Singaporeans from all walks of life - some strangers - also paid tribute.
Last Sunday afternoon, there were three nonagenarians, a couple with two toddlers and a stream of leading athletes making their beeline to a void deck bathed in colourful wreaths.
And many reminisced about Colin, a colourful character and a principled man, a fourth generation Eurasian of German/English/Chinese descent who was the "life of any party" and who enjoyed Indian cuisine, especially at Gayatri, Gandhi, Muthu's and Samy's Curry.
In an off-the-cuff eulogy at the Church of the Holy Family on Monday, Joseph said: "My dad was a quintessential gentleman, a loving husband and father. During the wake, I had met so many people, even his childhood friends whom he had probably not seen for 60, 65 years.
"Many good things had been written about dad in newspaper and magazine articles. But I would like to remember dad for one special thing.
"It was not about the Olympics. It was at the 2019 SEA Games in Clark, just before the 100 fly final. He called to tell me this: 'Son, if I had pushed you too hard all these years, I'm sorry'."
Then Joseph assured the gathering that "we'll be OK", just affirming what he told me at the wake. "Mum's a strong woman, and I know that many responsibilities will fall on me now. I'm prepared."
I knew Colin for 30 years, meeting him for the first time at the Singapore Island Country Club lounge after he had completed a round of golf, a sport in which he excelled.
Our casual conversations turned to serious sports talk after a chance meeting at the Old Course at St Andrews sometime in 1997. He revealed his cherished wish to turn Joseph into a swimming champion. Joe was then a chubby two-year-old.
The road to Joseph's Olympic glory at Rio 2016 was littered with hard family decisions, mainly about finances, that forced Colin to sometimes wonder if it was all worth it.
But he believed fervently in his son and trusted him to fulfil his lifelong dream. While watching the "Rio miracle" live on television at mutual friend Jimmy Teo's house, Colin and I wept and hugged in euphoria when Joe touched home first in the 100m butterfly final.
Then he told me: "I'll give Joe a big hug when he comes back, baba." He did that at Changi Airport a week later.
Just hours before he died last Thursday, he could not get up from his intensive care unit sickbed to repeat the act.
Fittingly, Joseph gently lifted his dad and hugged him. For the last time.
- Godfrey Robert was The Straits Times' sports editor and The New Paper's consulting editor (sports).