There was a lot of pressure on Kaka Wong Pleroma as she went into the Hong Kong Artistic Open Championships last month. The 14-year-old King George V student’s performance would determine whether she retained her spot in the national gymnastics team, and be eligible to compete in more high-level competitions.
Fortunately, the team’s only full-time junior athlete delivered an outstanding performance in front of her coaches. Kaka took first place in three events – balance beam, floor exercise, and vault – and came third in the uneven bars, to be a clear winner of the tournament’s all-round championship medal.
“For me, this one was more like a selection competition. If I did well, they’re going to put me in other competitions this year,” explained Kaka, who is in her last year as a junior athlete. “I did feel a little pressure because if I didn’t do my best it might also affect my senior year. If I didn’t do well, I might not be able to go to other competitions.”
While it is common for juniors to compete across all disciplines, seniors tend to specialise in their training, and only perform in one or two events. That Kaka came first in several events is really promising for the future of Hong Kong gymnastics.
However, Kaka makes sure that talk of her impressive performance, at such a young age, doesn’t go to her head. She says that she is her own biggest critic.
“It feels amazing [to be on the national team at this age], but sometimes it can also be scary because I’m achieving a lot more than I thought I would,” she said. “Sometimes I’m not sure I can keep it up, so it’s scary. I also think about what others think of me, and I put a lot of pressure on myself because of it.”
One person who helps mentor her is legendary Hong Kong gymnast Angel Wong Hiu-ying. The Olympian and Doha World Cup silver medallist was a poster girl for aspiring young gymnasts like Kaka. Today, the pair are now teammates.
“The whole reason I started gymnastics was because of Angel Wong. Now we’re training together,” said Kaka. “I told her, and she was so happy about it. Sometimes I still can’t believe it, like when we’re hanging out, training or talking!”
Kaka, who came first in the balance beam competition at the Artistic Gymnastics Asia Cup in Mongolia in 2018, told Young Post last year about her intense 30-hour-a-week training schedule. Is she coping with it better, one year on?
“It’s getting a lot better now – I don’t feel as much stress as before, but of course there is still quite a lot,” she said. “I do feel stressed because, due to Covid-19, I’ve been isolated for almost a month. I haven’t been training for almost a month. I’ve been [to the gym] three times this week but I still have a lot to catch up on.”
Of course, being a student athlete also means there is study involved.
As she’s now in the middle of her IGCSEs, she tries to prioritise studies and training over her social life. Any remaining time is spent on something we all love to do – sleep.
“I sacrifice a lot of social time because if I did go out with my friends, I wouldn’t have time to work,” she explained. “So usually I finish my work, and make sure I know how much time I have for my training schedule. If there is any spare time, I usually rest!”
After a great start to the year, next up on her agenda is the PacificRim Gymnastics Championships in New Zealand in April, before the postponed Artistic Gymnastic Asian Championships. Kaka hopes her recent success means her good form continues.
“I will put more effort into studying but also the right amount of effort into gymnastics to keep me going as I aim for the goal I want,” she said. “It’s mainly goals that I set for myself [that motivate me to do this], which are going to national games and bigger competitions.
“I have a lot of people to thank. My family, my coach, my teammates, and obviously my head coach for giving me the opportunity to become a full-time athlete,” says Kaka.
“That has made a big difference.”