True Grit. A series of conversations with people on Mental Health and Resilience.
Episode 3: Dato Pandelela Rinong. Malaysia’s national diver and Olympic medallist.
Brought to you by Etiqa
First Published on 14 December 2021
Even the toughest get tested. For Dato Pandelela Rinong, who has been diving since the tender age of seven, the physical and mental toil—at this exacting intensity—are just part and parcel of her life. She works like a Trojan all year, four years long, for a chance to make the country proud at the Olympics.
Now, four Summer Olympics later, at 28 years old, the Bidayuh diver reflects on the 21 years of dedication and how she keeps her head in the game. Peeling the layers is Azran Osman-Rani, founder and CEO of Naluri.
What keeps you going?
It’s my passion for diving that keeps me going and continuing diving for Malaysia.
How did you discover that passion?
I think it’s because I’m an adventurous kid and I’m always curious and I get to fulfill that curiosity by diving.
How did you go from being a kid to being selected for competitive diving?
When I was in primary school, a diving coach came to my school to select the students who are interested in aquatic sports. I was one of the students who was chosen and she asked me to go to the nearby swimming pool to learn how to swim first. After a few lessons, I asked the coach whether I can try to jump from the three-meter platform because I saw this huge and tall platform across the swimming pool, and then she said “yes”. She noticed that I was quite brave to jump from that platform. Then she asked me whether I wanted to take diving seriously.
So you’ve never had a fear of heights?
I’ve never had a fear of heights because when I was small I used to play a lot with my brother and climb trees playing at the river.
Take us through what it takes to train at the highest level. What are the pressures? What does your day look like?
My daily routine is quite fixed. Mostly training like eight hours a day six days a week, and I only get to rest on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. It’s quite regimented but it also gives me a purpose.
In the pool, I’d train eight hours a day. Diving is just like my work, and the diving pool is like my office. I train for four hours in the morning and another four hours in the afternoon. In between, I’ll take a quick nap or grab some lunch and then continue. Outside of the pool, I’ll go for gym sessions like strength and conditioning training three times a week and then I also go for regular massage and physiotherapy.
With so much expectations on your shoulders, have you ever thought of giving up?
When I was just starting up diving there were two times I thought of giving up. The training was very tough, and the coach was very strict. She had high expectations. Some days I just couldn’t take it, so I tell my parents that I want to give up. But then again my parents know that I have talent in this sport, and they know how much I love diving. So they advise me that you’re going to regret your decision in like maybe two months. I take a few days’ break, but then I still come to training after that because I still think that my parents’ advice was right.
Talk to us about what it takes to prepare before the competition and what do you take to prepare right before your dive?
First of all, people need to know that diving is not an easy sport. It’s not like the sport that anybody can take up because it requires certain skills and also an amount of courage to just jump from the platform. Even though you’re brave to jump, you have to also learn the technique, how to do all the somersaults. It’s not easy. It takes me a few months to learn certain new dives. I have to be physically and also mentally prepared for it. Training isn’t usually smooth or rosy. Sometimes you feel less motivated, sometimes you just feel lazy.
What’s one moment where you felt like things just didn’t work out?
For example, in every athlete’s career, injury is your worst nightmare. I’ve been training very, very hard all these years, the injuries took a toll on my body. Sometimes I feel like ‘why am I doing this, when all I do is just hurt my body more and more?’ but at the same time I’m very grateful that I get to find myself a very good physiotherapist that keeps me going and continue diving.
I would like to dig deeper into your mental fitness and resilience regime, what do you do day-to-day, because it’s not by chance that you build that focus and concentration.
I started diving internationally when I was 14, so I found that my thinking and my mindset is more mature compared to others my age and it’s because of my routine. It’s also because of my discipline, that I have to follow diligently every day and because of that, I trained myself to be more determined and also to be strong—not just physically but also mentally.
Where does the inner strength come from? What goes through your mind when you need to find the inner strength?
I think because I want to make my family proud, and not let them worry. I just don’t want to disappoint them because of all the support that they have given me throughout the years. My family is very important to me. Because I came from a not so well-off family, I found that diving helped me to improve not just myself but my family’s standard of life.
Can you talk to us about the typical negative thoughts, or external pressures that are hurled your way and how you deal with that?
I can tell you this one experience I still remember when I was in secondary school. There were some boys who liked to make fun of my name because my name is quite special. The boys can get quite creative with it. I did speak up for myself, but they always find ways to counter. So I work hard in silence and I am better and then I achieve something in diving that helps me to be more confident.
You’ve had very senior people criticise you. How do you take that criticism?
I just ignore it. I use that as a motivation for me to improve myself and to be better because I don’t want to stoop down to their level.
Now let’s go to the day of the competition. As you climb up the stairs and you walk up the platform what goes through your mind.
Before every dive, I usually pray. Walking up the stairs, I just think about my dive and I pray that everything will go smoothly. I will dive my best. When I’m already on top of the platform and I’m about to dive, I just shut my mind and then just dive according to what I’ve been practicing.
That’s a very important skill though, to be able to shut your mind. How did you train to shut your mind?
I used to experience that before when I was starting to dive internationally. I overthink a lot and I worry about the future, about what people will think about me, but then I also learned from that mistake and now I practice mindfulness regularly. You can be lying down, or you can sit by yourself, and then you just be present. Then you can put on some relaxing music, or no music at all, but you just feel the energy surrounding you. I also practice gratitude at the same time.
When I was starting up this mindfulness activity, I found that my mind was wandering around quite a lot, and it’s very hard to control. But then after a few practices I find it getting easier and easier.
I want to take you to the recent Olympics in Tokyo. You had the weight of the nation’s expectations for you to medal. Talk to me about that critical dive where things may not have gone exactly how you intended. How did you feel and how did you deal with that?
Tokyo wasn’t exactly what I wanted, because I’ve been training hard for the past five years for this Olympics and it just wasn’t really what I wanted. I have to realise that the preparation for this Olympics and the previous Olympics was so much different in terms of the training. Our training and competition were affected because of the MCO (Movement Control Order). You couldn’t train at all. We have to stay at home and try to do what we can. What I do is just trying to catch up after we’ve been quarantined for like three months. While other countries are already training normally, Malaysia is still in quarantine, so I have to take that into account, and just be grateful with what I have achieved. For me, what’s more important is the journey. You have to finish it.
But as you get out of that pool, knowing that this didn’t turn out the way you hoped, talk to us about what went through your mind right that moment as you climbed up that pool, as you walked out.
I just tell myself ‘sometimes things like this happen’, and that’s why you call it competition—anything can happen. I just take it with an open heart, and I tell myself that “there are still four more dives to go, just finish it and be careful and take care of your body.”
When things don’t go according to expectations, where do you turn to for support?
I turn to my family and I also have a godmother who guides me spiritually. They are my support system so whenever things are going tough, I always seek advice and also support from them.
How do you decide through people who are genuinely looking out for you versus people who just want to be seen with you?
I’m quite observant and I always trust my intuition. I am also very aware of my surroundings and who I make friends with. I keep my circle small and those in my circles are the ones that I trust and I love.
How do you proactively nurture those important relationships?
By building trust and creating connections that are respectable.
How do you take care of yourself? How do you nurture your soul, your mind, presumably they’re all interrelated?
I only get Saturday afternoon and Sunday off so in those two days I use as much of that time to take care of my body and my mind very seriously. I take my sleep very seriously and I go for regular maintenance like going to the spa or going to the church.
You brought up one very important word: recovery. How does recovery play a key part in your program and have you been in situations where it’s been tough to recover?
For me, I use my body to dive. Therefore, I really need to take care of my body. But sometimes I forget that I also have to take care of my mind. Even though your body is in the top form, your mental health might not be in the top form. So that is why I always find some time to meditate, to keep it balanced.
What are the signs you look out for when you may be experiencing mental distress?
I really experienced that during the MCO this year, where the national athletes are being quarantined in the Bukit Jalil Sports Complex. We weren’t able to go out at all for three months, and all we do is train, we have to stay in the complex, and most of the time it’s just between the training place and the hostel room. I realised that my mental health was not balanced, and it affected my physical health. Suddenly I have this injury here and then this injury there, and it took quite a while to recover. So I told my coach about it. I know that all I need is to go out because of the balanced routine that I always use, like going to the spa or going to the church… I cannot do it. I was quite depressed in the quarantine training camp.
What might be some symptoms that made you notice that something is off?
I become less productive in my training. It was quite stagnant and I got angry pretty easily.
And I find it hard to go to sleep when I’m getting more tired, and I binge eat.
Was there some specific episode in your life that’s really shaped who you are today and your ability to adapt and be resilient?
The competition, it’s easy to win for the first time but it’s not very easy to maintain it and be consistent with it. For every loss, I find something valuable that I can take to make me stronger physically and also mentally.
How do you take that experience?
I keep a journal with me because I’m quite a forgetful person, so I always try to jot down everything—even small details about my training, or just about my life. I like to read positive quotes that can motivate me and also I like to find comfort from my teammates.
How goal-driven are you? What are you looking forward to especially as you shared with us that you have the next 2024 Olympics in your sights?
Besides the Olympics, there are major competitions coming next year so that’s why I’m still training hard for them.
What are your biggest goals?
My biggest goal is to be the best in the world but recently I find that I also need to be the best for the world. Anyone can be the best in the world but it’s how you achieve that, right? For me, it means that I have a certain principle and faith that I must follow. it’s always good to follow the right thing.
What’s your goal-setting system? How do you track your progress?
I have a wish list. For example, there will be four major competitions next year, like the World Championship, Commonwealth Games, and Asian Games. So in every competition, I have a personal target that I want to achieve and I set a routine that I must follow just like what I always do.
I have this one ritual that I will always follow. If something is not going well, I know that I didn’t follow that ritual. It’s like something about discipline, a fixed routine. Sometimes I’m lazy, I don’t want to do the meditation and then it can lead up to circumstances.
What do you do that’s part of this ritual?
That’s my secret! (laughs)
At the recent Tokyo Olympics, gymnast Simone Biles pulled out because she felt that she was not sufficiently mentally at the top of her game. Can you relate to what she went through?
For me, the techniques of gymnastics and diving are quite similar where you have to do all the twists, all the somersaults. Sometimes when you’re mentally distracted, it can be quite dangerous. Especially for gymnasts where they land on the mattress, on the hard surface. For diving, we go into the water, it’s quite less dangerous.
For Simone Biles, I totally respect her because if you are not mentally strong it can cause something like a phobia which happens a lot in diving. That’s why some of the divers retire early.
Did you ever go through something like that yourself?
Yes I did and it takes a lot of mental courage to focus, to be able to adapt and also to try that dive again.
We just see such energy, such motivation, such passion, such drive—where does it all come from and how can people learn from you?
I have these quotes that I always keep in my heart which are “never give up on your dream” and “as long as you have faith in yourself, nothing is impossible”.
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