By HARIS ELIAS
NUR Dhabitah Sabri, 16, has more on her mind than just school work and exams – she’s preparing to carry the hopes and dreams of a nation at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
We met the national diver – who qualified for Rio 2016 recently – in a massive gym at Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur, where she is surrounded by trampolines, bars, spring floors, a selection of weights and safety mats.
In a corner, her partner, Olympic bronze medallist Pandelela Rinong, is resting on a table, getting a sports massage. Preparing for the Olympics is incredibly hard work.
Like Pandelela, Nur Dhabitah came from humble beginnings. She began swimming when she was five, but after two years, her dad encouraged her to try diving as he saw no future for her in swimming – a decision which has paid off spectacularly.
But it wasn’t just a lucky decision. A story common among young elite athletes – where dedication is paramount to success – are the many sacrifices that have to be made.
She trains around six hours a day. On top of that, she has classes every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Bukit Jalil Sports School (BJSS), where classes are scheduled around training.
Even before she made it to BJSS, she trained every day from 3.00pm to 7.30pm.
Last week, she also had to sit for her year-end exams. “It was tough because I missed a lot of classes, but I’ll try my best.”
It’s exhausting, but her success has helped motivate her to push her limits.
“My achievements drive me to keep diving, because there have been times when I have thought I can’t go on but when I keep winning, I see something in myself,” she said.
Nur Dhabitah won gold at her first ever SEA Games in Myanmar in 2013, partnering Leong Mun Yee in the synchronised 10m platform event.
In the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, more glory followed when she earned a bronze medal in the synchronised 10m event, partnering Rinong.
She found the podium again in June this year, partnering Ng Yan Yee, claiming gold at her second SEA Games in Singapore in the synchronised three metre springboard event.
Pandelela’s career trajectory is no less amazing. Her diving career started in Kuching, Sarawak where she would train up to eight hours a day. It was only during term time when she would train after classes that her training was cut down to four and a half hours.
Her coach Wang Jin Lan, who now coaches in Brisbane, Australia, was the person who first encouraged her to take diving seriously. Her parents swiftly followed suit in support when they saw that she had real potential for a successful career.
Pandelela puts her dedication down to not only her love and passion for the sport, but also how rewarding diving has been to her on a personal level.
“Diving gives me inspiration and I can relate it to a lot of things in my life,” she said. “I’ve found good friendships, good team mates and a good relationship with my coach – all of which I don’t want to give up.”
At 22, Pandelela is now a mature athlete. She has steadily clocked the hours training, competing, defying odds and proving her naysayers wrong.
Her purposeful demeanour is evident as soon as we sit down to talk, immediately asking who we are and what the interview is about.
She then recalls the time a reporter asked her what her biggest ambition was many years ago, and her response was simple: “I want to participate in the Olympics.”
“At the time, I think my friends laughed at me because they thought it was totally impossible, so I wanted to prove to them that it can be done,” she said. Her doubters, she adds, only inspire her to be more determined to succeed.
Of course, Pandelela did reach the Beijing 2008 Olympics, and became Malaysia’s first female flag bearer when she led the Malaysian contingent out at the 2012 London Olympics.
It was also in London where she became the first female Malaysian athlete to win a medal at an Olympics – and the first medallist outside of badminton – when she took bronze in the 10m diving event.
Juggling school, spending time with friends and family and Olympic training is no easy task, but the pair seem unbothered by the burden placed upon their young shoulders.
With what little spare time she has, Nur Dhabitah savours what most teenagers like to do. “I like to spend time with my family, watch movies with my brother and eat ice cream.”
Nur Dhabitah’s parents remain incredibly supportive of her career, and they were overjoyed when she qualified for Rio. “She was so happy she was speechless!” she said.
Pandelela, who is now studying Sports Management at Universiti Malaya, takes advantage of any spare time to catch up on sleep – which is vital for her recovery – before catching up with friends.
After her most recent success at the World Diving Championships in Kazan, where she bagged a bronze medal in the women’s individual 10m platform, she has had little time to see her family but she hopes they understand.
“I’m sure they are happy, but the most important thing is that they are proud of what I’m doing right now and know what I’m doing here,” she said.
While Nur Dhabitah might be well on her way to becoming a hero for many young Malaysians, she still looks to her peers and teammates for inspiration. “My heroes are my seniors, my colleagues, my friends.”
Pandelela is used to the hype and media attention that success brings, and she hopes to help Nur Dhabitah do the same as the spotlight inevitably turns towards her.
“As you become more successful and noticeable, you get more haters trying to put you down,” said Pandelela. “I try to give her advice wherever I can because she’s young and I’ve experienced what she’s going through.”
Even at 16, Dhabitah is learning to block out negative comments in the media, many of which are shared on social media. “I don’t read them, but my sister tells me about it. I ignore them, so that I can stay focused.”
She was also well aware of the criticism that fellow Muslim athlete Farah Ann Abdul Hadi received for her supposedly revealing gymnastics outfits. “I haven’t been criticised for that yet, but even if I do, I will just let it go and continue my career. It won’t affect me in any way.”
Apart from diving, Dhabitah and Pandelela also share another passion – K-pop.
“We sometimes share songs and tell each other what we’re listening to,” said Dhabitah. “But we also talk about school and exams, and I ask her for advice on diving, which really motivates me.”
Pandelela has high hopes for Rio, but she won’t take anything for granted – she is determined to bring home more medals.
“Representing your country is every person’s dream. You want to make your own country proud, and I want to create more history for Malaysia.”