Pandelela Rinong first burst onto the international diving scene when she competed at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 as a 15-year-old, finishing 27th in the 10m platform. Two years later, the bubbly Malaysian won two silver medals at the YOG Singapore 2010 and began establishing herself as one of the rising stars of women’s diving.
Medals at the world championships, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games soon followed, before she made history at the Olympic Games London 2012, winning bronze in the 10m platform to become Malaysia’s first female athlete to win an Olympic medal.
The trailblazing Rinong has since continued to enjoy international success, winning another medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 – this time in the 10m synchro alongside Cheong Jun Hoong. With each success comes greater expectations, however, and Rinong is now aiming to cope better with that pressure by recapturing the easy-going nature she exhibited during her medal-winning performances at the YOG…
We first saw you competing on an Olympic stage in Beijing in 2008, and then two years later you were winning two medals at the YOG. What were those two experiences like for you?
“In Beijing, I think it was so much more about the competition. Everyone wanted to win. But in the Youth Olympic Games, it's not just about winning; it's also about friendship. I actually made a lot of friends at the Youth Olympic Games, and I also got to know a lot of the divers, because they were all having more fun, not so serious.”
Just two years later, you made history at the Olympic Games London 2012 by winning a bronze medal. How do you reflect on that now?
“It's incredible. Can you imagine that when I was in the bottom three in Beijing, and then suddenly I finish third in London? I feel like it's still like a miracle for me.”
How did life change for you after winning bronze in London?
“The feeling was very different. People started to recognise me. Whenever I went out with my friends or family, people would recognise me; they were very happy to meet me and they would always say nice things, about how I inspire them and things like that.”
Did you then feel more pressure to achieve further success on the international stage?
“Yes, of course. I feel overwhelmed, but also at the same time I feel pressure, because it's easy to win but it's very hard to maintain your performance. People just keep expecting you to do better; they keep expecting you to achieve better than before, so that is actually putting pressure on me at that time.”
After winning another medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, does the pressure feel even greater now?
“Yes. Of course, the support is more right now from the people, and everyone wants me to do better in Tokyo or at least maintain that performance. So it's definitely a bit more pressure. But also I remember when I was at the Youth Olympic Games, when I just enjoyed myself. And when I enjoy myself, I can perform at my best. That’s something I have learned. During these past few months during the pandemic, I watched all of my previous competitions on video, and I realised that whenever I enjoy my competition, and don't think about the target, I always perform better. So I want to take that kind of mentality and mindset into the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and my preparations.”
How else have your life and your training been affected by the pandemic?
“I can say that, because of the pandemic, I have had the longest-ever break since I started diving. I think it's also been a blessing for me, because the years of training and competing non-stop took a toll on my body. I’ve always had these on-and-off injuries that I never had the time to rest and actually cure them 100 per cent. But, because of this pandemic, we were forced to stay at home, and I couldn’t go diving. So, I think it's been a perfect opportunity for me to recuperate from my injuries and also give myself a well-deserved break.”
Have you been able to use this time to try anything new?
“I have forced myself to learn how to cook. And because of that, I now think that it's not easy to cook! Most of the dishes that I've been cooking involve cutting onions, so I hate that part; I really hate it. But I’ve learned how to cook some new dishes, like chicken curry and then miso soup... quite a learning experience for me. I’ve also learned how to meditate, and so I’ve been doing some mental health awareness activities.”
Has that been good for you, to focus more on your mental health?
“Yes. I think mental health is very important for athletes because they need to train not only physically but also mentally. Because if you do one of them, it's not balanced; you will get in trouble in the future. I’ve now started to think about things more calmly. I used to think and take action based on my instinct, but right now I focus more on using my head.”
And how do you think that will help you in the future?
“I think it gives me better purpose. Before this, my goal was just to win that medal. I wanted to perform my best and make my country proud. But after this, my purpose has changed a little bit. I want to enjoy the competition, because the world is always changing, and I just want to inspire people through my competition.”