Weightlifter Simplice Ribouem’s journey from Cameroonian asylum seeker to Australian Olympic Games hopeful. By Jack Kerr.


Ultimate power: Simplice Ribouem, 32, weightlifter

You become a different person when you are lifting. You turn into the beast. You turn into someone people never imagine you can be. Because the weight is not your friend. It just wants to stick to the floor, and you’re the one who wants to lift it up. So if you want to lift it up gently, softly, you won’t be able to do that. You have to be angry, and bring supernatural power to lift it.

It takes maybe two months to get back that power you release in the big lifts. So in training, I never lift my full weights. You have to save, save, save, and wait for the right time. You have to be ready to explode. That’s one of the things I’ve learnt, to manage that. Because after I qualified for the London Olympics, I was training so hard that I snapped my elbow.

I grew up in Cameroon, and there, well, my childhood was really, really hard. So hard. Anyway, I try even to not remember that. I used to do judo, soccer, boxing. But my mum, she didn’t like the blood, so she tell me, “Simplice, can you find something different?” My dad was weightlifting in the past, so he send me away to train with his friend. I was probably 12 at the time.

I was skinny. Very, very skinny. Could not even lift 20 kilos at that time. But his friend say, “I’m gonna train you for one year and a half, and you are going to be a champion.” I say, “Are you joking me? Look at me.” But after six months, my body was massive. And in my first competition, the African championships, I came third. It boost me up. My dad say, “You gonna reach where I didn’t reach. Whatever I didn’t get to, you’re gonna get there. And more.” He was so happy.

When I left for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006, my coach said I am going to bring a medal back home. But when I won a medal, I decided not to go back. Because life was so tough over there. And because other countries, the government give you something to survive on if you win medals. We had a big fight with our bosses over this, and so I called my dad and my coach, and they told me just follow what my heart say. And my heart just say one thing: “Simplice, take this opportunity.” So I went back to my room, I took my bag and just left.

I did not know Melbourne. I did not know English. So I didn’t know who to approach, who to speak to, where to go. So I sleep in a park. It was in Brunswick. I sleep on a bench there, with my bag like a pillow. And I was really freezing. So after that three days, I went back to the village. Nobody was there anymore. They’d left. The village was empty. That night, on the way back to the park, I met a man who looked after me for three days.

He offered me a beer, a “Victoria…” something. I don’t drink beer, but if you don’t have a beer, I will not make a friend with him. When he was talking, I did not know what he was saying, so I’m nodding my head. Then when he heard on the news about me, he started to freak out. Because the government say if I not turn up soon, they declare me illegal. So he dropped me off at the Red Cross, somewhere where he knew they can look after me.

The man who beat me for gold last year in Glasgow [Steven Kari of Papua New Guinea] was really disappointed. Because when your elbow touches your knee in a lift, you should be out. But there was an issue with a panel member, who was the coach’s wife. So this lifter, he was nearly going into depression. He apologise and say, “Simplice, it not my fault.” I say, “Yes, I did not come to steal your medal. I accept that.” We are good friends. He know his place. When he meet me, he know his limit.

Weightlifting is more mental than physical. It is more here in your brain than in your body. And it is emotional. To lift a good weight, you’ve got to be happy. In the warm-up room, the others always try to intimidate you, and to break you inside. But a funny joke will help you release that power. Be happy, not angry. Be angry with the bar, not angry with the people.

1 . This week’s highlights…

• Horseracing: Caulfield Guineas

Saturday, 1st race 1pm (AEDT), Caulfield Racecourse, Melbourne

• Soccer: A-League – Sydney FC v Melbourne City

Saturday, 7.30pm (AEDT), Allianz Stadium, Sydney

• Rugby: World Cup – Australia v Wales 

Sunday, 2.45am (AEDT), Twickenham, London

• V8 Supercars: Bathurst 1000

Sunday, 11am (AEDT), Mount Panorama, Bathurst, NSW

• Tennis: China Open – men’s and women’s finals

Sunday, National Tennis Centre, Beijing

• Formula one: Russian Grand Prix

Sunday, 10pm (AEDT), Sochi Autodrom, Sochi, Russia

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 10, 2015 as "Ultimate power".

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Jack Kerr is a dual Australian Sports Commission Media Awards winner who writes about the business of sport.

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