EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Pandelela Rinong of Malaysia on fame, diving, and forgiving
The then 19-year-old diver added 'first non-badminton medal at the Olympics' to a list of 'firsts' that she has accumulated for Malaysia, including:
- First-ever medal at the World Aquatics Championships (2009)
- First diving gold medal at the Commonwealth Games (2010)
- First female flag bearer at the Olympic Games (London 2012)
- First female silver medallist at the Olympic Games (Rio 2016)
Originally from the Malaysian state of Sarawak, Rinong jumped off the diving platform before she could start to swim.
"Surprisingly at the time, I didn't know how to swim yet" - Pandelela to Olympic Channel, on her first diving board experience
She started diving lessons aged nine, and went on to win her first national medal at the age of 11. She then made the national team at only 14 years of age before managing to qualify for her first Olympic Games in Beijing as a 15 year-old.
The three-time Olympian has already earned her spot at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and awaits making her fourth consecutive Games appearance.
But her diving career has meant missing some big family occasions.
"I haven't celebrated my birthday at home since 2007. It's been more than 10 years that I've celebrated it overseas."
The Olympic Channel Podcast caught up with the in-demand 27-year-old, who is self-isolating at home in Malaysia during the coronavirus pandemic.
"The fame can bring you up, but also can bring you down. And as you get stronger, you tend to get lonelier because there are a lot of obstacles coming in." - Pandelela Rinong to Olympic Channel Podcast
Olympic Channel: Is it strange to be out of the pool for so long at the moment?
Pandelela: It's been weeks without diving, so I'm not really training right now. I'm just doing some physical training without the diving. I think that since I started diving, this is like my longest holiday.
OC: Can you describe your growing up and where you come from?
PR: I grew up in Sarawak, which is one of the states in Malaysia, and it's a beautiful place with beaches and also lots of animals and forests.
I have four siblings and my brother and I participated in diving. I started diving at the age of 8, so I didn't get out much. All I did was diving and then went to school and repeated the same routine for almost 17 years.
OC: Do you remember when you first started to dive and how did it make you feel?
PR: It started in elementary school when a scouting coach came to our school to pick talent. And I was one of those selected.
She asked us to go to a nearby swimming pool to learn how to swim and when I went to the swimming pool, I saw this diving platform and asked her if I could jump from that platform.
She said, yes. So I jumped from the lowest height which was the one metre platform, and soon I was jumping off the five metre platform.
I remember I felt so excited after the very first jump. As I was the only one who dared to jump from the one metre and also the three metre platform.
OC: Did you want to go and jump off something higher straightaway?
PR: Surprisingly at a time I didn't know how to swim yet. So basically the coach was just waiting for me in the water. And then grabbed me after I had jumped in. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment after each jump because the rest of the students didn't dare jump from that three metre platform.
OC: When did you when did you finally catch up and learn how to swim?
PR: Maybe six months later, because of the coach.
She was also scouting for talent across all aquatic sports. So when she noticed that I had an interest in diving, she focused me towards diving but insisted that first, I needed to learn the basics of swimming.
"Nobody expected me to qualify for the Olympics. Nobody. Not even myself." - Pandelela on Olympic debut in 2008
OC: How excited were you when you made your Olympic debut in 2008 as a youngster?
PR: To be honest, I was fifteen back in 2008 and nobody expected me to qualify for the Olympics. Nobody. Not even myself.
I don't know how I did it, I guess I performed well enough during the qualifying and I landed a spot at the Olympics.
But when it came to the Games itself, I had an aching back so I didn't really perform well. But nevertheless it was a great memory and a great lesson for me on how to do better at the next two Olympic Games.
OC: At the London 2012 Games you were the first female flag bearer for Malaysia. How much did you enjoy that moment?
PR: I don't know what was going on but leading up to the 2012 Olympics, every day, I would have aches and pains in different parts of my body. And just before they announced that I would be the flag bearer I had this shoulder injury and I was quite worried if I could hold the flag throughout the opening ceremony.
But luckily, the flag wasn't so heavy and I didn't trip. I nailed it!
OC: You won bronze in the 10m platform to become the first female from Malaysia to win an Olympic medal. How's your relationship with your bronze medal?
PR: We're still best friends! I think I have a wonderful relationship with my bronze medal because it was really unexpected. I loved that competition, not only because of the result. I just really enjoyed the competition.
OC: After 2012 you became really famous. Along with positive messages of support came criticism. How did you deal with that?
PR: That's how the world is right? You just have to take the positive ones and then just ignore the bad one.
If I see that it's constructive criticism that can help me be better, I will do it. I will improve myself.
But if it's just something that is very mean, something that brings me down, I will just let it go. Forgive and forget.
I began to realise after 2012 that as I get stronger and achieve better results, I tend to get lonelier.
I spend more time diving compared to spending time with my friends and family because off my diving commitments. I just focus more on the diving rather than my personal life.
"I am actually [motivated by trying] to prove [people] wrong." - Pandelela on why she continues to dive
Chinese pair win Women's Synchronised Diving 10m gold
Chinese pair win Women's Synchronised Diving 10m goldWinning her third consecutive Olympic medal, Ruolin Chen and her partner Huixia Liu take gold for China.
OC: You won a silver medal in the 10m synchro event at Rio 2016, how much did you enjoy that experience?
PR: To be honest, 2016 Rio was very stressful for me because the expectation was higher and people just expected me to deliver.
If I compare that to London 2012 where nobody expected me to win a medal, Rio 2016 they were very hopeful and they expected me to deliver a medal or at the very least, maintain my performance.
OC: What what motivates you each day to keep on diving?
PR: As I said earlier, the fame can bring you up, but it can also bring you down. And as you get stronger, you tend to get lonelier because there are a lot of obstacles coming in. [There are always] people who are not happy when you achieve something
I am actually [motivated by trying] to prove them wrong and also wanting to prove that [I can be] better.
Trying to prove them wrong. Try to be better. Try to prove them wrong. Again!
Pandelela Rinong is on this week's Olympic Channel Podcast.
Each week we find the people to interview around the Olympics to inspire, motivate, and entertain.