Sink or swim, Pandelela Rinong was aware the country had her back before making that leap from 10 metres above the water line. The stakes were high, but she knew she had nothing to lose … no Malaysian had been this far before, after all. And with one deft leap, two and a half somersaults and one and a half twists later, she sliced through the water of the Aquatic Centre at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London like a hot knife through butter.
The remarkable dive earned her a bronze medal, the first by a Malaysian outside of badminton, and the first female athlete to win a medal at the Olympics for the country. Badminton may have always been viewed as the ticket to success here, but Lela, as she’s fondly known, has put diving firmly on the nation’s sporting map.
But beyond what she’ll probably be always remembered for, is a sweet young girl looking to realise her ambitions and one who’d simply like to enjoy the normal things in life, too.
She was born and raised in Kg Jugan, Bau, Sarawak, which, like any other youngster her age, involved playing with her three siblings, particularly her older brother. “We climbed rambutan trees and plucked fruits, because that’s what people did in villages,” said the charming 22-year-old during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
“I never dreamt of becoming an athlete. In fact, I wanted to become an air stewardess, because I like planes, but that’s no longer an ambition,” she said, intimating that her aspirations to travel are now being realised through her sporting pursuit.
Like most families, the TV figured prominently in Lela’s household, and she took in the cartoons of the day. “I used to watch Sailor Moon, and I still enjoy watching Samurai X, Dragon Ball and Bleach. The characters are cute and courageous, and I can imagine being one of them,” she said, identifying with the colourful players.
Strangely, on the flip side of her anime interest is her appetite for horror movies. “I scream during scary movies, then laugh at myself for my reaction,” she said, reeling with a hearty laugh. Naturally, she likes her action flicks, too, citing Hunger Games’ character Katniss Everdeen as a source of inspiration. “She is very determined and strong, and I like that.” And her being a young girl only means she has her fair share of heartthrobs, of which the late Paul Walker lies at the top of the pecking order.
While her casual fashion sense (her choice colours for clothes are blue and black) may not allude to it, Lela, is also a huge K-pop fan. She singles out BigBang’s Fantastic Baby and 2NE1’s I Am The Best as two tunes she can never have enough of, songs that have worked into her “psyche up” routine before taking to the board. “The songs are catchy and upbeat … they are really awesome,” she explained, as a sales pitch for the genre.
Despite her demanding diving career, she has also made time for education, and her field of study, Sports Science, has enabled her to better understand the implications of injury and healing.
“I learn about injury prevention and treatment. Also, the course has taught me about the muscles involved in diving,” she elaborated, indicating that it has allowed her to fine-tune her technique.
Lela, who just signed with Knight Communications to manage her branding opportunities outside of her diving career, is Malaysia’s bona fide dive queen, but the youngster is also just as much a spectator for certain sports. “My roommate is a rhythmic gymnast, so, I’ve developed a liking for the sport, too. It’s really hard to work with a ball and a hula hoop,” she reasoned.
Now that she’s in the public eye, she’s been identified as a role model, which simply means she attends corporate events and motivational talks, where she shares her life as an athlete and the stakes involved. So, what would be that one piece of crucial advice she would look to impart? “Anything you pursue might be difficult initially, but never give up. Just be patient and work hard, and you’ll be happy with the results.”
An excess of 34,000 followers on Facebook suggests that she has touched the lives of many with her story of grit and drive, and she is pleased with the following, but feels meeting her fans in person would mean a whole lot more.
The animal lover, who has a seven-month-old Pomeranian puppy named Lulu, loves dolphins and reckons more should be done to keep their numbers healthy in the wild. “They’re very interesting mammals and have an IQ level that’s 20% above humans, and of course, they’re also cute and playful.”
Diving competitions have taken her far and wide, gifting her the opportunity to sample a plethora of food types. She’s chomped down on numerous delicacies, but says nothing beats Malaysian food; “Our food has so much variety, and you can generally find it in one place … you don’t have to go far to find it. I love Sarawak food, especially kolo mee and laksa Sarawak.”
Expectations can be debilitating, and with the weight of a nation on her young shoulders, striving for success can sometimes be crippling. “Winning the bronze was obviously a great feeling, but the expectations are very high now. Sometimes, there’s just too much pressure to be consistent,” she revealed, a strain peeping from behind her smile.
Even though she is saddled with the responsibility of doing the nation proud, Lela is a still a supreme athlete who is able to turn in a winning performance while under pressure. She did so with aplomb last week, getting on the podium to receive a bronze in her pet event – 10m platform individual – at the Diving World Series in Windsor, Canada.
Detractors will always exist, but, Lela is ever ready for a challenge and the many story boards that lie ahead in her life.