With a leap, a two and a half somersault and a half twist, Pandelela Rinong made Malaysian sports history when she dived her way to a bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. It was Malaysia's first medal win outside of badminton and Pandelela was the first female Malaysian athlete to win an Olympic medal.
Malaysia's diving darling has since followed up on that feat with a series of sterling wins at the diving world series and Commonwealth Games. She currently ranks in the top ten of FINA's 2016 overall ranking for the women's 10-metre platform, and in 2015 was awarded Athlete of the Year by the Sportswriters Association of Malaysia. These accolades and awards are just the tip of an iceberg of achievements, and are no small shakes for a girl from a sleepy little village in Sarawak.
Born and raised in Kampung Jugan, Bau, Pandelela's beginnings were active but normal. She started swimming at the age of eight, when she took to the water naturally. “I love to play with water and I've always been adventurous, so there was no problem with water phobia or being scared of heights,” she says.
Within months of learning to swim, she was asking her coach about the diving platforms at the swimming pool. The coach asked if she wanted to try jumping from the 1-metre springboard. “I did it without a second thought,” recalls Pandelela. Thanks to her lean physique and flexibility, she was a prime candidate for the sport and started diving lessons at the age of nine. A year later, she entered her first national competition, and by the time she was 11, she had won a bronze medal.
She worked her way from state-level competitions to join the National Team in 2007 when she was just 14. Pandelela's first international event was the FINA Diving World Cup in Beijing in 2008. Her sixth-place win in the 10-metre platform event earned her a place in the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, but she did not make it to the finals. She made up for it at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, where Pandelela won the gold medal in the 10-metre platform competition, yet another first for a Malaysian athlete in diving.
The game-changer for the determined lass was the 2012 London Olympics. Pandelela was only 19 when she proudly hoisted the Malaysian flag at the London Olympics, the first female representative from the country to do so. Days later she would dive her way to a bronze in the 10-metre platform individual event.
“I feel very proud of myself for achieving something that I used to dream about when I was young and just started diving. I'm also very happy to represent Malaysia as a national diver and that I was selected to be the first female flag bearer for the country,” she says.
Since then Pandelela has been constantly pushing her boundaries and winning medals at the world's diving series, whether in the individual or synchronised events. A multiple SEA Games winner, she won the women's 10-metre platform gold medal at the SEA Games in 2015 for the fourth time in a row, continuing her reign as the top female diver in this region.
In 2015, she upped her game further by clinching her first individual medal at the 16th World Aquatics Championship in Kazan, Russia. One of her personal best achievements, the medal was especially hard-won as she climbed to a podium finish after a lacklustre start. With the win she had also qualified for the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio – the first Malaysian to do so.
International swimming superstar Michael Phelps has said, “If you want to be the best, you have to do things other people aren't willing to do.” For an Olympic champion, that means constant training, and Pandelela is putting in her hours ahead of the Games in August. She trains eight hours a day, six days a week. Her fitness regime consists of diving training, strength and conditioning training. During this time, she eats three to five meals a day, concentrating on taking in more protein, fibre and minerals, and cutting back on the carbohydrates.
“In order to be successful, one needs to be disciplined, independent, have lots of perseverance to overcome obstacles and the patience to spend endless hours in training,” says Pandelela, who is a frequent guest speaker about her inspirational journey.
When it comes to her personal motivation, she looks to her family. “My family keeps me motivated. My mom always tells me that we need to work harder in order to achieve better than the others. Besides that, the award recognition and prize money are also good motivation for me to continue doing my best in training and competition.”
What free time Pandelela has she spends catching up on sleep or hanging out with her best friends doing regular things like eating out at favourite restaurants or watching movies. She is also a huge fan of K-pop. “Diving in Malaysia is still considered a young sport. It's only been 18 years since it first debuted here as a national sport but the Malaysian diving team has achieved a lot in these short years thanks to their dedication and to fans who love and support the sport. I want to continue creating history for Malaysia through diving,” says the 23-year-old.