Aiming for a bigger splash

Success has not changed Malaysian diver's strict work ethic so another medal's a good bet

When Malaysian diver Pandelela Rinong snagged a podium finish with a 10m platform bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, things were looking optimistic for the young athlete.

The first from her country to nab aGames medal outside of badminton, she found herself thrust into the limelight upon her return.

Four years later, as she prepares for Rio, expectations are running high that she will bring home another medal - a tall order for the 1.59m Sarawakian.

"My aim is to break my personal record," the 23-year-old told The Sunday Times, stopping short of admitting that a medal is on the cards.

To do so would mean surpassing the 385.05 points she amassed at last year's Fina World Championships in Kazan, Russia en route to Malaysia's first bronze at the event.

Achieving that would most likely mean a medal, although the hue of the metal will depend on whether she can further close the gap on her rivals.



    LONDON 2012
    359.20PTS - GAP TO GOLD 63.1pts

    385.05PTS - GAP TO GOLD 12pts

    Team manager Mae Chen says: "If Lela can maintain five dives without fumbling, she stands a good chance of winning the bronze."

In London, although she was third, she was 63.1 points behind the winning total. But at last year's World Championships, she cut the gap to 12 points.

"It's true we never got gold at the Olympics, but I don't close the door to that possibility," she said in an interview in March with Fina, the international body that governs water sports.

"Everyone in Malaysia expects an Olympic medal from me, and there is some public pressure. But I can cope with that."

She has had to shuttle between China and Malaysia a few times a year for much of her preparation for Rio. And it was on a trip back that she found time to speak to this newspaper at the dormitory that is a five-minute walk from the National Aquatic Centre pool in Bukit Jalil.

Training as a diver since the age of eight, she joined the national diving team when she was only 14.

The gruelling routine of eight-hour sessions (with a break in between for lunch and a short rest) for 51/2 days a week has shaped her schedule throughout her life, as she commuted between training pools, dormitory and tournaments.

She follows a similar routine in China, where training is conducted for a month each time.

Such a regimented schedule can take its toll. To inject some variety and fun in her life, she turns to Snapchat and is an avid fan of Korean pop culture.

She already has plans lined up after Rio to backpack in South Korea in hopes of catching her favourite K-pop groups, Big Bang and 2NE1.

"I'll travel to Seoul, eat their food, visit the entertainment agency buildings," gushes Pandelela, revealing another side to the serious athlete whom Malaysians have come to admire.

Though she is a celebrity herself, the diver has remained grounded and unaffected by international achievements, those close to her said.

While she has come a long way from living in a small town off Kuching, she has not forgotten her roots, often describing her childhood as one with "humble" beginnings.

"She's appreciative of people who trained and helped her," said Mae Chen, Malaysia's national diving team manager and secretary of the Amateur Swimming Union of Malaysia.

Growing up as an athlete meant that the youngster spent her teenage years away from home, seeing little of her family.

It is a sacrifice she marked as a downside to being a sportswoman, but says she "can't give up halfway".

There have been other difficult moments, most notably in 2014, when she was almost dropped from the national team after suffering an injury to her left knee just before crucial competitions - the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the Diving World Cup.

"It was my lowest point. I had less than one month to a competition and the doctor said I couldn't dive for six months."

But Pandelela made sure that she bounced back from the incident by jumping back into the pool one week later.

"It was painful but I could still endure it," she said.

Out of the pool, she is completing her degree in sports management at Universiti Malaya, juggling assignments with her full-time commitment to diving. Though she could opt to live outside the training centre, she stuck to the dorm.

"That way she can sleep till the last moment!" her manager Jolene Knight said, as Pandelela burst out laughing.

Her managers described her as playful, cheeky and inquisitive when she is not training, attributes that have kept the diver well-loved by fans who follow her on social media.

With photos and captions that regular Malaysians can relate to - a photo of her holding a bowl of chilli pan mee, her favourite, garnered over 1,000 likes on Instagram - it is not hard to see why she is one of the most popular personalities in Malaysian sport.

Her popularity is helped by the fact that she continues to make waves in the sport.

Currently ranked fourth in the world for the 10m platform by Fina, she is a regular medallist on the world stage, with her most recent success a bronze for the synchronised 10m platform, with long-time partner Leong Mun Yee, during April's World Series leg in Russia.

Based on her current performance, team manager Chen forecasts another medal from Pandelela during the Rio Olympics.

"If Lela can maintain five dives without fumbling, she stands a good chance of winning the bronze," she said.

Unfazed by the country's heavy expectations, Pandelela just hopes that her performance as a diver would help create more interest in the sport.

"In Malaysia, diving is not as reputable as badminton or cycling, so we need this kind of exposure to make the sport more popular."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline Aiming for a bigger splash. Subscribe