“I feel okay,” said our cover star, as she examined herself through the mirror. She was made-up —foundation, concealer, smokey eyes, heavy lashes set against bronzed skin. This was one of the rare moments where Pandelela Rinong, Malaysia's star diver and Gen.T lister, saw a different side of herself, a reprieve from the wet-hair, chlorine-scented and red-eyed look she would normally sport on her training grounds.
At the age of 24, Pandelela has led a very disciplined and guided life; not having experienced most of the things that a typical young woman her age would have. When she was 14, Pandelela left her home in Sarawak to be part of the national diving team—therein having to spend a lot of time alone. Everybody else (her teammates) used to go home every weekend while she had to find ways to entertain herself.
“Most of the athletes lived in KL and were lucky, because over the weekends, they all had the comfort and support of their family, and got to taste home-cooked food every now and then.”
While that’s the environment that she grew up in, she was also very used to having things arranged for her, and was taught to constantly follow instructions. “Since the age of eight, when I started diving, I’ve always been trained to be obedient and follow the instructions of superiors, or someone elder than me,” said Pandelela. She doesn’t do things out of her own volition, and is used to having things being handled for her.
“Things were always arranged for—tomorrow I would board a plane, compete the next day, then return after a few days, and it will be back to training.” Things went on swimmingly till after winning her first medal. As she started becoming more famous, many people came to her, offering a lot of things and making proclamations of wanting to help her. Thus she has to be wary of people around her, as deciding who to trust became difficult and disheartening.
At first thinking the world is pretty and trusting anyone and everyone, Pandelela is aware that she does lack certain life skills, and is starting to learn to be a bit more street-wise—a lesson learned through experience, so now she treats trust as a luxury, not to be given so freely and easily. Her manager, who accompanied Pandelela during the shoot revealed that “She gives very canned answers during interviews. She doesn’t usually reveal much, as she is pretty reserved and doesn’t warm up to people easily.”
This is perhaps the first time Pandelela made the decision to really dig deep into her emotions, where she (with some difficulty) opened up, to let everyone see, and read, about who she really is behind the ever-smiling, celebrated athlete guise. “I’m worried I’ll cry,” she said, laughing it off. After much assurance that it was okay if she did, we started with very light-hearted topics, such as her love for spa treatments and her desire to go for car drifting one day.
“I love going to the spa. Even my coach says I’m addicted to massages. It’s not really a bad addiction, but I try to go every weekend as long as I can find the time for it. I also go for the sports massage three times a week, because I’m not as physically strong as compared to my other teammates, so I need more time to recover. As for the car drifting, that’s not allowed because I cannot partake in activities that can potentially injure or affect my body.”
The topic of diving eventually came about, as was natural, where the matter of what would have been different had she not chosen this path was asked. “I think I would have been just a normal girl, doing ordinary routines like going to school, getting married early,” she replied with a laugh. “It probably would have been a simpler life. My cousins, who are younger than me are happily married with children. I’m grateful for the life I’ve led, and it is because of diving that I managed to move from a small town to KL.”
Having chosen this sport, she is ever appreciative of the support she has received from the government and her coaches, who have mentored her and looked after her as she chased her dream, despite having her whole life change since being selected.
“I never thought I was normal actually, because diving has been my entire life. Sometimes I don’t know how to be normal. I am not ‘normal’ like everybody else, and my ‘normal’ is very different from anybody else’s.”
We can imagine, with her life so heavily built around diving, being away from home to train for world-class sports championships, family time isn’t something that she would have the choice to embrace. “I am quite distant from my two little sisters because I have been living apart from them,” said Pandelela, a little sadly.
“I also know that my parents don’t fully realise the situation with my career, but it’s understandable. I sometimes cannot express how I truly feel with them; I do feel that my friends understand me more than my family.”
She then referenced one of her previous Instagram posts on National Siblings Day, where she captioned “Trying to understand my siblings is harder than winning the Olympics.” We all laughed, of course, but a sad reality hung heavy in the air, before the question of whether she ever felt alone in the world, or not, came about.
“Yes, of course I feel lonely,” she said, and paused for a moment, “One time I was scrolling down my Facebook feed and came across an article about depression and anxiety. I read about the symptoms and thought that I had both!” She laughed at her own paranoia, and then explained further, “But I know that you cannot trust everything you read on the Internet, plus I have a psychologist I can talk to, if I ever feel the need to.”
It’s bad enough dealing with the pressure to perform at diving, but there is also constant pressure from social media—where some keyboard warriors persistently try to hurt her in any way they can. Even appearing in media and being involved in photo shoots was a point of criticism by the haters. One of them mentioned on Facebook, “Oh, you’re not a model, stop trying to be one,” another, “Oh, stop putting on makeup, you should concentrate on diving and not dressing up.”
“Maybe they forget that I’m a girl. People always watch me anyway, and are curious about what I do, so I guess I just have to be extra careful. For me, it’s OK. I try not to let it affect me. Of course I will be upset for awhile, but I get over it. Usually I share about it with my friends and teammates and we end up laughing it off.”
Humble heart, big dreams
“As far as normality goes, I think the most normal event is me getting accepted into university. Otherwise, everything goes back to diving. My life revolves around diving. Once you’re outside diving,” she continued, “You don’t know what is out there. It feels like there is nothing outside this life. Even though I must accept that I’m 24, I feel like I am 18, or maybe younger. I don’t know how to be an adult, I admit.” In her world, there is no clocking in at 9am and leaving the office at 5pm, no such thing as taxation and wealth management and other daily flurry.
An athlete's struggle
“People don’t know what it feels like to be an athlete,” she said, broaching the subject of sacrificing time with the family and for studies as well, having little to no social life. “The reality is not that glamorous. Most people only see 10 seconds of me in front of the camera, but not behind the scenes. But if they’re really in my shoes…” she paused for a moment, “Perhaps they will understand me more and wouldn’t be so quick to criticise, and judge so badly. I want them to understand me and to be compassionate. Everyone has their own struggle which you don’t know about.”
On taking on negativity, head first
One of the worst comments she had ever received from a negative person was when she was told that she was “such a waste of money,” after she had only managed the bronze at the Olympics. She teared up at this recollection, before saying resolutely, “It’s always easy to criticise. I remember when they said ‘the government spent so much money on you guys and you don’t even perform.’ To them, it’s always about the medal, and not the hard work we athletes put in. We obviously do want to give our best, we don’t train for nothing. Maybe something happened on that day—old injuries flared back up, or the athlete isn’t feeling well, or is mentally stressed at the time.”
Pandelela is competing this month at the SEA Games, and while she’s performing well and continues to train to the best of her abilities, there are still looming questions such as ‘What is to come? What happens after the glory days of the athlete are over?’
Pandelela shared her discomfort at this question. “That’s what I’m most afraid of. Eventually I must accept it and face early retirement, because I can’t dive forever. My greatest fear is not being able to do what I’m doing now, which is diving, because I cannot imagine life without it. But I have to accept the fact that when we (divers) are in our 30s, our performance levels drop. I think by that time, I will have to figure out what else to do with my life.”
A lot of the athletes’ sacrifices are unknown because they can’t share it, and the injuries that they sustain while being so young increases the likelihood of their bodies becoming worn or battered by the time they hit their thirties. Starting a new life as a normal person can be quite challenging as they transition from being somebody to nobody.
Looking forward, Pandelela accepted a scholarship to study at Universiti Malaya, where she has one more year to go before she completes her degree in sports science, and she hopes that she can manage. It seems that in the line of sports, most athletes later turn into coaches or instructors.
"I see my seniors who have retired early... A few of them chose to continue their studies, but some of them have retired and are not doing too well. I think I want to do something that still involves diving—maybe become a manager? Or maybe participate in FINA (the international diving federation) as a committee member.”
Whatever it is that our star diver decides on in the future, and however she performs at the SEA Games this month, there is no doubt that she is already a winner in our eyes and hearts. “Someone once told me a long time ago,” she said with finality as she finishes her green tea latte, “All these sacrifices will be worth it.”
Words: Kathlyn D'Souza
Photography: Aaron Lee/ Lensworks
Styling: Andrea Kee
Hair: CKay Liow
Makeup: Cat Yong
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