When something means the world to you, the last thing you want to hear is that you’re not good enough to succeed in it. But Hong Kong junior gymnast Kaka Wong Pleroma has had to learn to develop a thick skin. Criticism comes with the territory.
The 14-year-old is currently the only full-time junior athlete on the national gymnastics team, but being the youngest does not get her any special treatment. Training for nearly 30 hours a week may be physically gruelling, but far more mentally exhausting is the struggle to have faith in herself, in the face of constant criticism from her coach.
Kaka’s first two weeks on the team were tough. As she recalls, she cried every single night on her way home, each time thinking that she would never set foot in the training hall again. Still, with the support of her parents, and the guidance of her older teammates, she began to understand the dynamics of the team, and learned to stop taking comments personally.
“Sometimes, my coach says that I’m useless; that really hurts. But I know others get yelled at too, and my mum keeps telling me not to give up, because that’s the only way to fulfil my dreams,” says Kaka.
Having now been on the national team for a year, Kaka is getting closer and closer to those dreams. Last month, she was crowned champion on the balance beam at the 1st Junior Artistic Gymnastics Asia Cup held in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. She also reached the finals in the floor exercise category, eventually placing fourth.
The beam champion says winning a gold medal was beyond her wildest dreams, especially given that the junior Asia Cup was only her first overseas competition. And while her coach may be hard on her sometimes, the contest was one of the moments when Kaka felt thankful for her insight. She knows her coach made the right call during the finals, when she decided to lower Kaka’s difficulty score, reducing her chance of failing.
“When I came off the beam, I was speechless because I knew I couldn’t have done any better. When the score came out, I was so happy, I burst into tears immediately,” she recounts. While her victory felt amazing, Kaka’s attitude towards success has changed since the competition.
Like most competitive athletes, Kaka had always believed that nothing could beat the feeling of finishing in the top three, and nothing below that mattered. But when she came fourth in the floor exercise, she realised that she doesn’t need a shiny medal to get a buzz out of competing.
“I wasn’t sad that I missed out on a medal,” she says. “I still felt that joy because I had the honour of going there and competing.” Still, the trip to Mongolia has given Kaka a much-needed confidence boost, and she now feels more certain about making a career out of gymnastics.
Going professional at just 13 was an unprecedented move in Hong Kong, but Kaka has been able to stay in education thanks to the support of her school, King George V School. Her timetable has been specially tailored to fit around her hectic training schedule, and she has free periods for self-study and revision.
So far, Kaka, who is now in Year 10, feels she’s handling things quite well. Her trick to fighting off sleepiness is to take short power naps and cold showers before starting her schoolwork.
Kaka is also ready to take on her second overseas competition. She’ll be heading to the mainland for the 2nd National Youth Games in Shanxi in two weeks’ time. This time, she will compete in all four events: beam, floor, vault, and bars.
“I know the competition is very hard, so I haven’t set any concrete goals yet,” she says. “I’m just aiming to get a better experience of everything.”