"Diving is like floating through the universe with sparkling stars all around you," read a FINA post on Instagram which Pandelela Rinong Pamg re-posted a few days before she competed at the FINA Diving World Cup in Tokyo at the beginning of May.
On the day of the finals at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, it was the superstar Malaysian diver who shone in a moment of poetic justice, delivering a flawless dive – a 2 1/2 somersault and a 1 1/2 twist – which landed her Malaysia’s first-ever World Cup gold medal.
That historic win showed Pamg in top diving form and raises the stakes even higher for everyone else in the rescheduled Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer.
“It [gave me] a boost of motivation. I know what I need to improve on - [I know] my weakness - to improve to make me better in the Olympic Games,” Pamg told Tokyo 2020 in an exclusive interview.
Tokyo 2020 will be Pamg’s fourth time competing at the Olympics, the Games which could be the most crucial in her diving career. For one, the whole of Malaysia is watching and waiting for Pamg to finally clinch the country's first Olympic gold in the sport after already obtaining a bronze and a silver in past Games.
“I know that the expectations given by Malaysians are very high for me this time around,” the 28-year old diver said.
“They just want you to do better, to achieve better. So it gives pleasure also because you have to deliver."
While the pressure is indeed on, Pamg is choosing to block out all that noise for now and focus on what's important.
“So what I always do is - [to] already get used to this pressure. And what I do is just focus on what I always do in my training and just think about the present. I don't want to think about the future. I don't think too much,” the Malaysian diver said.
‘Diving found me’
Staying present and trusting her instincts are the compass which Pamg have relied on right from the very beginning of her career.
At age eight, when she was scouted to be part of an aquatics programme in school to learn swimming, her instincts told her to try out diving when she first saw a platform.
“To be honest, I think diving found me first in school. And then after that first jump, I [just] knew - I fell in love with that sport.”
And embracing the sport she really did: In just a few years, she was invited to be part of the national diving team at only age 14. That meant leaving her hometown Sarawak and moving to Kuala Lumpur all by herself and away from her family.
“I had to make some sacrifices. I had to learn how to be independent, to be wiser. And then I had to learn new skills in order to make me be independent,” Pamg said looking back at the start of her budding career.
But her sacrifices were not in vain as the young diver had true instincts for competition.
At 15, she made a splash in her first Olympic Games at Beijing 2008 as one of the youngest divers coming from Southeast Asia. While she only placed 28th in the Games, it was just a warm up to what would become be an illustrious career internationally and in the Olympic Games.
In London 2012, she would win a landmark bronze medal, making her the first Malaysian diver to do so. This was followed by a silver medal in 10m synchronised platform in Rio 2016 along with her partner Cheong Jun Hoong - as the first Malaysian female team to win silver in the Games.
And she said it herself: "I always had many firsts in my career as a diver."
Being an ambassador for the sport
Throughout her career, the three-time – and soon-to-be four-time - Olympian has brought prestige to Malaysia – a nation which by all accounts is known for badminton and other sports more than diving.
However, with Pamg now at the helm as the nation’s diving queen – she is not only putting the sport under the spotlight, but making it a possibility for Malaysia to one day be known as a powerhouse in the sport just like People’s Republic of China, Great Britain and the USA.
“I want to make this sport something that [new] generations can join in not [only] just as a serious sport, but also as a fun sport in the future,” she said.
In fact, even in her packed training schedule, Pamg makes it a point to do promotional activities on the side both in and outside Malaysia.
"I did some promotional activities for diving in the last few years and some campaign just to promote diving and locally and also internationally," she said.
But she also knows she can't do it alone.
“Swimming and also other sports are [easier] to learn and also you don't have to have certain facilities [compared to] diving. Diving is quite a dangerous sport if you are not careful,” she admitted.
“That’s why I want a lot of support from the public and also from the sport ministry in order to make diving as popular as other sports in Malaysia such as badminton and football.”
The Youth and Sports Minister of Malaysia attests to Pamg's influence to young Malaysians especially in Sarawak where she was born.
"I can see that we do have quite a number of young athletes coming up in diving from Sarawak, which probably in the next few years we would be able to see them creating waves, maybe in state or national circuits," the minister told Thebornepost.com.
However, there’s no bigger platform for Pamg to promote a sport than the biggest sporting stage of them all: the Olympic Games. And she’ll put it at centre stage again when she competes at Tokyo 2020.
Tokyo 2020: Malaysia’s first gold in diving?
Back from the World Cup, Pamg is navigating the current lockdown in Malaysia and is making sure her preparations for Tokyo 2020 continue.
“Malaysia has been under lockdown many times already. It's like the third time and it really is challenging because it affects our training, it affects our competition. But all in all, we athletes, it's our job to just continue training and also to give our best.”
At most, she's doing online training and home workouts, whilst keeping an eye out on her future rivals at Tokyo 2020.
“I look up to my rivals and then I watch them online, I watch their training through social media. It makes me inspired and motivated to not give up and not be lazy, to keep working hard,” she said.
While the whole of Malaysia are banking on Pamg’s victory at Tokyo 2020, she’s treating it like any other Games competition she had in the past.
"A lot of things changed in these three Olympics, but one thing that is not changing is the effort [which] will give you a reward, that's for sure. And also in every training and also in every competition, you have to learn something and then build yourself up just to be better than the previous competition or training."
“My approach for this Olympic Games would be just like previous Olympics, I just want to give my best and also to deliver,” she added.
Her goal for the upcoming Games is "to break my personal best in both of my events 10m individual and also 10m the synchronised with my partner". And for someone who’s been to three Olympics, Pamg says it's the consistency in her performances that truly matters.
“Consistency is the key to be able to continue and move forward."
“In order to be consistent, you just have to give extra effort. For example for your first win – okay, it's because you did like 10 times the effort. But for the next competition, if you want to do better, you need to do more. You need to give extra effort, like maybe 12 or 15,” she said.
For Pamg, there's no question that she'll push herself to the limits. According to her, Tokyo will surely be a special one.
“I think Tokyo will be one-of-a-kind Olympics. There will be no spectators I think and it's also once in five years Olympics. [But] most importantly, everyone, every diver wants to do their best, and they want to achieve their dream despite the pandemic. You can see a lot of surprise in Olympics.”
But will Pamg be on course again to make history?
She may be relying on a favourite motto to do so.
"There's this one quote that I recently read, and I really like it, which is this: 'When prayer becomes your habit. Miracles become your lifestyle'." Because I'm a Catholic, I always believe that when you do good, you will be rewarded," Pamg said.
And then comes her wish for the whole of Malaysia.
"Well first of all, I hope that Malaysia will get better in this pandemic and I also hope that the Malaysian contingent stay healthy, stay safe and hope that we can achieve or create new history for Malaysia," she said.
Watch Pamg and the top divers in the world vie for top podium from 25 July to 7 August at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.
This feature was first published on 7 June 2021.