After clinching fourth place at the 2020 Olympics and the first gold medal for Malaysia at the recent SEA Games 2022, she continues to put on performance after sterling performance, all in the name of making her country proud. Meet The Z List 2022, national diver and Malaysia’s sweetheart Nur Dhabitah Sabri.
At just five feet tall, Nur Dhabitah Sabri manages to exude all the grace and charm of a self-confident young athlete. Pair that with her knack for communicating and making people feel comfortable, and within seconds you almost forget you’re talking to a national icon. Underneath the calm exterior, the 23-year-old diver is nothing but humble and affable.
Having made headlines just recently in the 2021 SEA Games, Nur Dhabitah needs no formal introduction. Her career in diving, which really took off in 2012 when she became the youngest Malaysian to win two events at the South-East Asia Swimming Championships, has spanned the last decade with considerable feats under her belt. From the Commonwealth Games to the SEA Games and just last year, placing fourth in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Nur Dhabitah continues to make her nation very, very proud.
“Diving is ‘it’ for me,” Nur Dhabitah says of the ‘love of her life’. “I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember, and so it feels like I don’t know how to do anything else. It’s my whole life.”
She expresses that she cannot choose just one favourite moment from her career, and that the entire experience of diving is what she lives for. She thrives on the ups and downs that she goes through along the way — the highs and lows, the success and frustrations. Utterly devoted to the sport itself, Nur Dhabitah talks of diving the way one would the course of their life.
“As I grow older, I think what’s most important is to make yourself proud. Even if I don’t make a perfect dive but I still feel happy, it’s more than enough for me.”
On perfectionism and overcoming the fear of failure
When she was five years old, Nur Dhabitah began learning swimming and quickly fell in love with the water. Due to her small physique, her father sought out a suitable sport for her and her older brother to compete in, and came across diving in the newspaper. Hence, from seven years old, Nur Dhabitah committed herself to the sport, plunging herself into her career that would span the next one and a half decade.
Contrary to popular belief, not all top athletes have a special or ‘crazy’ routine that they put themselves through on the day of a competition. For Nur Dhabitah, she lets the day go by as ordinarily as possible to ease the pressure. Whatever training routine she has been undergoing on any normal day, she’d let it run its course, even on the days of the biggest competitions.
“It helps me keep a cool head,” Nur Dhabitah jumps in. “Otherwise, I would definitely be thinking too much. Just before my turn to dive, I’ll probably listen to some funky music; upbeat songs that will keep me energised and make me feel pumped while I warm up. You’ll usually see me on my own at the side of the pool, dancing around to music. I like moving my body before I make the dive. I don’t like to just sit there and wait in silence, because otherwise I’ll start to overthink about how I might mess up my dive.”
When asked about what’s on her mind in those few seconds on the platform or springboard, just before she makes the dive, Nur Dhabitah laughs. “Oh, I don’t think at all before I make the jump. I just jump!” She expresses that thinking is a double-edge sword and overthinking can be the true enemy.
“Of course, during training, there’s a lot to think about — things like needing to keep my legs straight, or my arms steady — and that’s because I’m trying to improve,” Nur Dhabitah goes on. “But if I think too much before I jump, I’ll just end up splashing and making mistakes for the next few rounds.”
Sometimes the very opposite can happen — if she’s done really well in the first round, a case of overconfidence can strike instead, and that can also end up in making mistakes. So, Nur Dhabitah comes to the conclusion that thinking too much isn’t a good thing, but not thinking at all is not good either. At the end of the day, you have to find the right balance.
Diving is really more of a mental challenge than anything else, but Nur Dhabitah would like to put it out there that it’s not the only tiring part of the sport. She expresses: “People think that diving is not as ‘tiring’ as we describe it, because they assume that all we need to do is jump into the water, and that’s it. But obviously, it’s so much more than that! It’s not just the stairs that we climb to get to the platform, but it’s also about the techniques that we practise when we’re training that really makes it tiring. We have to always be focused, otherwise anything can happen. We can accidentally hit our head on the board and get injured. It’s a very serious thing, so we always have to be careful. That’s why, after training, we are usually very quiet because we’ve used up the energy of both our bodies and our minds. “
Of course, being alone with your own thoughts is just one of the factors that might pose a problem when it comes to overthinking. Having thrown herself into her diving career at such a young age, Nur Dhabitah admits that she feels the pressure from the outside forces, too. Her family and close friends — all of whom are always cheering her on — are the people she wants to make proud and subsequently, would hate to disappoint. This creates a kind of perfectionist nature where Nur Dhabitah pushes herself to her limit to do the very best she can.
Over the years, however, Nur Dhabitah has come to the realisation that making someone else proud should not be a priority. “As I grow older, I think what’s most important is to make yourself proud. Even if I don’t make a perfect dive, but I still feel happy at the end of it, then it’s more than enough for me.”
In looking forward, Nur Dhabitah chooses to focus on improvement rather than perfection. Having competed in both the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, her own personal development is what she considers her greatest achievement. She often watches videos of her previous competitions, both to learn what she can do better and to also recognise the changes that she has gone through since. Knowing that she has improved herself with every competition is the most important thing to her.
“I was having a lot of self-doubt at the time…and it got so overwhelming, I wanted to give up.”
On the highs and lows of large-scale competitions
Before taking on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo last year, Nur Dhabitah had gone through a range of emotions, and it became such a struggle to handle them that she almost quit halfway through her training.
“I was having a lot of self-doubt at the time,” she opens up. “I think part of it had to do with the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown as well. I felt like I didn’t have the support from the family to help me, physically, so I was very stressed out. All the emotions started coming to me, and it got so overwhelming. I wanted to give up. I just felt like I had to get out of there. I’m really grateful to my coach at the time — Christian — he was there for me through it all, and he gave me the confidence to keep going. I also feel really blessed to have such a great diving family, who has helped me to grow more in life and in diving.”
Christian Brooker, the Australian diving coach, constantly assured Nur Dhabitah that she is an amazing diver. He feels very lucky to have coached the Malaysian diving team, he says, because of the tenacity and strength of each of them. His ‘never say die’ spirit is what revived Nur Dhabitah’s love and passion for diving, and he regularly reminded her that she should not have anything to worry about, because there is nothing she lacks when it comes to the sport.
When the results rolled in and she finished in fourth place, her first reaction was absolutely ecstatic. “I came in fourth, which was way better than I expected!” Nur Dhabitah laughed.
“Although I didn’t win a medal at the time, it really goes to show that no matter where you’re from, you actually can win. It’s not an impossible feat. Honestly, I was actually expecting to finish in sixth, or just about anything after the fifth ranking. So, when I found out that I came in fourth, it made me realise that I really can make it onto the podium one day. I just need to train even harder, and keep improving myself. The most important thing to know is that no matter where you come from, you can always be the winner.”
On fitting in the mould of her generation
Having dedicated herself to diving since a young age, it’s safe to say that Nur Dhabitah doesn’t see herself as the quintessential ‘Gen Z’er — keeping a low-key digital presence, and preferring to focus on herself and schedule her own ‘me time’ instead of connecting with people on social media. Her training also keeps her busy most of the time, so it’s quite rare for her to have any room at all to be distracted by technology.
“On the surface, people might get the idea that ‘Gen Z’ kids are kind of weird,” she quips. “Maybe they think there’s not enough discipline put on us just because we’re younger, and so we have the tendency to get a bit wild. And we’re also on our phones a lot, which I guess can be true to some extent.”
However, not all of the ‘Gen Z’ traits are lost on her. Nur Dhabitah carries the same spirit that drives ‘Gen Z’ers today to become the hardworking, success-chasers they are known to be. Pragmatism is also a defining trait of ‘Gen Z’ers, and it is through this lens of realism that they view and go through life.
“Even though ‘Gen Z’ kids can seem eccentric, I do believe they’re really smart,” Nur Dhabitah affirms. “They have a lot of input. People like to think that just because they’re young, they don’t know anything. I think that’s wrong. ‘Gen Z’ers believe they have a voice, and everyone should really pay attention to what they have to say. It’s not really fair that they’re judged for it just because of their age, and so they’re not allowed to voice their opinions. Maybe people might think the opinion is stupid, but how are you going to know that if you don’t give it a chance and hear it out first?”
editor MARTIN TEO | interview PUTERI YASMIN SURAYA | creative ANDREW LOH | photography ERICJ LOO | makeup KEVIN LEE | hair KAY TUAN CENTRO HAIR SALON | wardrobe HERMES
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