Sport

From a Filipino orphanage to the pinnacle of his sport in the Commonwealth: meet champion gymnast Chris Remkes. By Paul Connolly.
Credit: GYMNASTICS AUSTRALIA / MARK AVELLINO

Vaulting ambition: Chris Remkes, 21, gymnast

I was about five when I started doing gymnastics. I was in a little club called Southern Stars in Adelaide. It was basically a kinder gym; just me running amok, really. I tried other sports through school but gymnastics became my passion. For the past few years I’ve been on a scholarship with the AIS [Australian Institute of Sport] and living in Canberra.

I have described my size [147 centimetres, 47 kilograms] as being like a superpower. Being small helps me rotate and twist in the air. It gives me an advantage over taller gymnasts. Obviously there were a few jokes about my size at school, but it never bothered me, and I was never going to let my size hold me back. I’m a very laid-back person.

My main ambition in gymnastics is to go to an Olympic Games and, before that, to medal at the World Championships in October [in Qatar]. Until recently, however, my main ambition was to win a Commonwealth Games medal. It’s kind of weird now to actually have done that [at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April]. The attention I got was amazing and, even now that I’m back in Canberra, I still get people coming up to ask me about the Games and ask for a photo, which is nice.

The Gold Coast crowds were a lot bigger than I’m used to but having a home crowd to perform in front of made it a little easier for me. It took away some of my nerves, made me more comfortable going into competition.

You’ve got to have a lot of mental strength as an athlete. Standing up the top of the runway before a vault, waiting for the judge to raise a hand [to denote the judge is ready for the gymnast to begin], a lot of things go through my mind – about doing my vault well, about sticking my landing. It’s nerve-racking. But as soon as the judge’s hand goes up the voices in my head settle. I take a few breaths and just do my best.

Vaulting with a gold medal on the line didn’t feel all that different. There was more pressure knowing I had the potential to win a gold medal, but I was able to treat it as just executing what I’d been training for. After landing my vaults I knew I was in a leading position and it was about waiting to see my competitors’ final vaults to see if they would overtake me. That’s a nervous wait and you’re caught between not wishing bad things for them but knowing that if they make a mistake it will be good for my chances.

Life has gone back to normal since the Games but I think the experience has changed me. It could be about having more confidence in myself and knowing what I’m capable of. I see my experience at the Games as helping make me not just a better athlete but a better self.

I have a tattoo on my rib cage that says: “Family isn’t always blood, it’s the people in your life that want you in theirs.” I got that when I was 19. It was the best quote I’d heard in terms of family and people, especially because it relates to me being adopted. I found it really meaningful. Yes, in a way, it is like a tribute to my mum and dad [Dora and Mike Remkes].

I was adopted in 1996 after I’d been in a Filipino orphanage [in Bacolod] for a couple of years. I believe my biological dad didn’t really want me and my biological mum couldn’t afford me so she had to put me in an orphanage. That’s understandable. The adoption agency had a few files on a few kids and my parents said that the second they saw me they knew. Obviously I don’t remember anything from that time. I also don’t remember when my parents adopted my brother and sister, also from the Philippines, after me. All my memories are growing up in Australia.

In general I don’t think about being adopted. I’m here, I have the parents I have now and I’m so grateful for that. Maybe being adopted has shaped me in some way. Maybe growing up with people who chose me, who have cared for me and shown me love, has made me who I am today.

I was recently at the South Australian Gymnastics Championships. But I didn’t compete. I was there as a special guest. There was a speech in my honour, a presentation, and a gift, which was really nice. Being there I remembered when I used to compete at the state championships and getting presented medals from people I idolised. Now I was the one presenting medals and having kids look up to me.

It was heartwarming when they came up to me afterwards and told me I’m an inspiration to them. Some opened up to me about their hopes and their struggles and what they love about gymnastics and I tried to tell them anything I could to help. I’ll just keep doing my thing and hopefully that will motivate and inspire them.

This week’s highlights…

• Gymnastics: 2018 Australian Championships

Until June 3, Hisense Arena, Melbourne

• Netball: Queensland Firebirds v West Coast Fever

Saturday, 3pm (AEST), Brisbane Entertainment Centre

• NRL: Penrith Panthers v St George Illawarra Dragons

Saturday, 7.35pm (AEST), Panthers Stadium, Penrith

• Soccer: UEFA Champions League final – Real Madrid v Liverpool

Sunday, 4.45am (AEST), NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium, Kiev, Ukraine

AFL: Melbourne Demons v Adelaide Crows

Sunday, 2.50pm (ACST), Traeger Park, Alice Springs

• Motorsport: F1 Monaco Grand Prix

Sunday, 11.10pm (AEST), Circuit de Monaco

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as "Vaulting ambition". Subscribe here.

Paul Connolly
is a freelance journalist and the editor of the anthology Father Figures.

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