Throwback: Olympic Medallist Pandelela Rinong On Taking The Plunge In Life
A Life Well Mapped-Out
“I feel okay,” said our cover star, as she examined herself through the mirror. She was made-up—foundation, concealer, smoky 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 wet, 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.
Finding Her Own Identity
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 me. 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 until 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. Now she treats trust as a luxury, not to be given so freely and easily. Her manager, who accompanied Pandelela during the shoot revealed: “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 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.”
Dealing With Pressure
The topic of diving eventually came up. “I think I would have been just a normal girl (if I wasn't diving), observing ordinary routines like going to school and getting married early,” she laughed. “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.”
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With her life so heavily built around diving, being away from home to train for world-class sports championships, family time is rare. “I'm quite distant from my two little sisters because I have been living apart from them,” said Pandelela.
“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.”
Does she feel lonely? “Yes, of course I feel lonely,” she said, and paused for a moment. “One time I was scrolling through 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.”
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It’s bad enough dealing with the pressure to perform at diving, but there is also constant pressure from social media. Even appearing in media and being involved in photoshoots 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" while another posted, “Oh, stop putting on makeup, you should concentrate on diving and not dressing up".
She said: “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
In her world, there is no clocking in at 9am and leaving the office at 5pm.
“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,” 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.”
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- Photography Aaron Lee of Lensworks
- Styling Andrea Kee
- Make-Up Cat Yong
- Hair Ckay Liow