Training is a full-time job but that hasn’t stopped Olympian medallist Pandelela Rinong from earning a degree at the peak of her career. The elite athlete gets candid about the challenges of juggling training and her studies.
ON Tuesday, national diving queen Pandelela Rinong Pamg, the second of four siblings, will be the first in her family to graduate with a degree. The fearless Sarawakian took her first plunge at the tender age of eight, and she’s been making waves since.
With two Olympic medals, and countless international honours to her name, the 25-year-old still found time to study for a sport management science degree at Universiti Malaya (UM). It was a journey that took the inaugural UM Olympian Fund scholar over five years to complete.
Outside the pool, the giggly K-pop fan with the steely gaze appears larger than life – at least on billboards and posters. In person, she’s shy and unassuming. Though soft-spoken, she’s confident and authoritative when it comes to her passion. Genuinely grateful for the opportunities that have come her way, she doesn’t take things for granted.
When she’s not perched precariously on a platform 10 metres above water, Pandelela, who speaks Mandarin, besides her Bidayuh mother tongue, English, and Bahasa Malaysia, is like your average student – scurrying to class, cramming for exams, wishing for more time in a day. The difference is, she also shoulders the hopes of the nation as one of the country’s top sportswomen. Smart and calm, the virtues that inspired her name, have indeed proven to be prophetic.
> How do you feel now that you’re finally graduating?
Really happy to move on.
> What kind of a student are you?
I’m a last minute person. Sometimes I stay up all night cramming for exams. I memorise better that way. If I prepare too early, I will forget.
> Favourite and least liked subjects?
I don’t remember. I only remember the lecturers I like and the ones I don’t.
> Have you ever fallen asleep at lectures?
Yes, when I was really exhausted after training and had to go for class.
> What’s your best and worst student memory?
Best would be making new friends. Juggling my training and lecturers was the worst.
> Did you have a social life?
Yes, but not as much as regular people I guess. Training is eight hours a day except on Sundays. Nobody wants to work on Sunday except if it’s nearing competition. Then I’ll train on Sunday mornings too. And training becomes more intense. So Sundays, Wednesday mornings, and after training, are when I get to do what I want. But I make sure I get eight hours of solid rest at night because sleep is crucial for me to recover for next day’s training. Recovery in between training is also very important. I train for four hours in the morning and four hours in the evenings. It doesn’t help if you’re mentally exhausted from studying even though you didn’t do anything physical. Also, there are contracts I’ve signed that I have to honour. So, if I get a call - even if I’m back home with the family, or already have something planned, I drop everything and go to where I’m supposed to be. But it’s okay. I understand. They help me and I help them.
> If you could do it all over again, would you put your studies on hold?
At first, I wanted to study because of my parents. I promised them that I would not give up studying just because of diving. I also had a career in mind and I thought that a degree would help. But I think I would have achieved more in diving if not for studies because to really excel, you have to do more than other divers. If your effort is 50-50, then the results will be 50-50. There will always be a little bit of regret studying and training at the same time but looking back now, I think getting an education was worth it.
> Did you think being a UM Olympian scholar was going to be this difficult?
To be honest, no. Because the scholarship was introduced for Olympians to cater to our needs. If I had known it was going to be so tough, maybe I’d have said no to studying. I expected the programme to be more accommodative of training and competitions. It didn’t work out that way. Deputy vice-chancellor (Research and Innovation) Prof Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, who presented me with the scholarship, was very kind. He even gave me a driver who sends me to UM for lectures, to Bukit Jalil for training, and back home. That’s one of the best things about the scholarship. But things weren’t as flexible after there were administrative changes because the new team didn’t really understand our challenges and what was promised. Everytime there’s a change in staff, I have to explain the uniqueness of the scholarship and my situation. Some of them are willing to do the extra work but most of the time, it’s frustrating on both sides. So I usually apply for special exemption when there are competitions. If it’s not approved, I have to postpone my papers which makes the whole degree process longer and harder.
> Have you ever thought of quitting?
Yes, many, many times. But I’m grateful that there are many lecturers who were sincere in helping and motivating me.
> Why did you continue?
My parents and friends, motivated me. My friends face the same problems and when we share, it feels better. I started something, so I want to finish it with grace.
> What’s your most valuable takeaway?
Sometimes I get asked about diving stuff. Now I can explain what it’s all about in a way that people can understand. I can talk about things like gym training using the correct sports science terms. I’ve also learnt to question things instead of just doing what I’m told. When I started diving, the coach would ask me to train at the gym and I’d just follow the instructions. Now I always ask why we do this, or why we do that.
> What were the challenges you faced?
Most of the time, it’s time management and the lack of flexibility. It’s also very hard to tell people outside the sport - like the lecturers, and administrators, about an athlete’s situation because most don’t understand our time constraints. They think we can give something up to make time for studies - give and take. But most of the time, elite athletes can’t do that. The sports centre lecturers are more accommodating. Lecturers in the other faculties where we do our compulsory subjects are not as understanding. Attendance is a must. The frustrating bit is not having a person who can liaise for me with the lecturers - someone who can explain on my behalf. The sports association can only issue support letters stating that I’m going for a competition on certain dates. I still have to go and see the lecturer myself and ask to be excused. It’s a lot of pleading and negotiating. Usually the problem is when I have training camps overseas. It’s very hard to justify to the lecturers why I need to be away for training. They are more willing to assist if it’s a competition. So I usually go for training later than the rest of my teammates because of lectures. But I understand why the lecturers are frustrated. They probably feel like they are the ones always having to give in, not the sports association. But to be fair, both the sports associations and lecturers need to answer for our performance. In the end, the victim is the student.
> How do you feel being caught in the middle?
It’s frustrating. I’ve never experienced this before. But it’s part of the growing up process. It was time for me to experience other things outside of my sport so varsity was a good opportunity to learn some basic negotiating and problem solving skills.
> Do your classmates give you a hard time for being away so much?
I think most of them understand. I give my full commitment to my studies. I don’t use my medals to ask for any special advantage. Sometimes I have to adjust my time because of classes. I try to make everything as normal as possible. But a month before the competition, I’ll usually stop attending lectures.
> What’s your advice to young athletes thinking of furthering their studies?
I’d ask them: Are you serious about your sport? Are you confident that you can excel in it? If you are, then you should put your studies on hold because that can wait. You can study when you retire but you can’t do that with sports. After a certain time, you can never peak again. So if you’re at the peak, and you don’t want that extra stress or pressure, wait. If the next Olympian wants to take the path I took, come look for me. I’m willing to share my experience. It’s sad that many talented athletes give up their sport to finish studying.
> How can varsities better assist student athletes?
I was almost not allowed to graduate because I had unpaid fees. I didn’t know that the scholarship had ended one semester short of my graduation. I wasn’t clear about the administrative aspect of the financial aid, especially after changes at the centre. We’re always running around trying to settle things so having a liaison officer who works closely with the university and sports association would help. An administrative framework for all departments related to student welfare, could smoothen things. Now, the administrators, clerks, finance staff and lecturers, are not talking to each other. There’s no communication between the departments.
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