Breaking Boundaries | The Story of Alexandre Simão

By Ashlee Buhler 

Inside a small school gymnasium in Namibe, Angola, a few worn sting mats are lined up on the floor. At the end is a makeshift foam pit, made from a few torn up mats to cushion landings. 

This is where Alexandre Simão, a tumbler on the Angolan national team, has learned everything he knows. It’s a far cry from some of the state of the art gymnastics facilities seen around the world, but Simão is not one to let his conditions interfere with his dream. 

Simão started tumbling at the age of six when his older brother Vasco began teaching him some skills at home. By the age of 11, Simão officially began tumbling with his hometown club Benfica do Namibe, located not far from the Atlantic Ocean in the city of Namibe where he lives with his mother, sister, and four brothers.

While watching Simão throw double layouts and tucked full ins with ease, it’s hard to believe he is completely self taught; a product of natural talent and utter courage. Without support from the African Gymnastics Union, his club cannot afford to equip the gym with proper equipment for safety, or even staff coaches to spot the athletes. Just this year his club received a personal trainer for strength training and conditioning, but coaches qualified to assist with tumbling are not available. Everything Simão has learned has been the result of his sheer determination, fearlessness, and belief in himself. 

“I do it without any help,” Simão said. “I just tell myself, ‘I must do that.’ I don’t say anything to anyone because they would stop me and say ‘you’ll hurt yourself.’” 

Simão just goes for it—it’s really the only option he has to reach the level he aspires to reach. Although there is sometimes fear involved with learning such high level skills on his own, it’s never enough to stop him. “Honestly, it’s very scary sometimes,” Simão said. “But I’ve decided to just think positive. I say to myself ‘I’ll get it,’ and then I do.”

While most gymnasts learn the sport with a coach by their side, breaking down each skill to its root in a gym filled with soft mats, Simão learned the fundamentals of the sport by watching tutorials on YouTube. This year he also began posting his training videos on Instagram, allowing him to receive pointers from gymnasts and coaches around the world such as Australia, Denmark and the United Kingdom. 

Six days a week for two hours each day, Simão can be found refining his skills or training new ones. When he is not in school (Simão is currently in his first year of college studying accounting and management) he trains for an extra half hour each day. Some days he trains at the gym in Namibe, however, because the gym is owned by a school and is often overcrowded, he often finds himself outside, training on the sandy beach just five minutes from his home. “It’s empty and free all the time,” Simão said. 

He makes it look easy, throwing double backs in combination on the sand, as if that’s what most people do when they go to the beach. Still, there is no fear. “My friends say I’m not human,” Simão joked. 

He enjoys performing double pikes the most, a skill he describes as “beautiful, yet easy.” But to avoid training becoming monotonous, Simão pushes himself to learn new skills, often looking online for inspiration. He idolizes the tumbling and trampoline gymnasts from Russia, Denmark, and Portugal, as well as Elliott Browne and Kristof Willerton from Great Britain. 

Simão isn’t afraid to dream big. One of his biggest goals is to learn a triple tuck and a standing double back. He dreams of being the best tumbler Africa has ever seen—and someday maybe even the best in the whole world. But for now he’s staying present in the moment and is focused on winning an individual medal at the African Championships. 

In Angola, opportunities to compete are far and few between. Simão typically only competes four times a year, with his first competition of the year scheduled for January 14, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has limited his opportunities even moreso. 

Financial support is another major obstacle for gymnasts all over Africa. On top of not having proper coaching and a facility to train safely, Simão recalls many days when he would travel to competitions without having enough food to eat. His club simply cannot afford to support him. 

Petro de Luanda, a gymnastics club in the nation’s capital, is Simão’s greatest opportunity for growth. Although still very limited, the club has more resources to offer such as paying for his travel to the National Championships and access to a team of coaches if needed.

As of December 2021, Simão has officially switched clubs and will represent Petro de Luanda in competitions going forward. The only downside is that his home in Namibe is very far from the club in Luanda. When going there, whether to train or compete, Simão will have to travel nearly 12 hours by bus. So for now, Simão will remain in Namibe with his family, training in the same gym or on the beach as he always has, but will represent Petro de Luanda in competition. The hope is to simply get more recognition from the African Gymnastics Union, which has been a big source of frustration for Simão. 

“No matter what you win here or the position you get at Championships, the federation doesn’t give us anything,” Simão said. “Then the clubs don’t care about how good I’m becoming because they don’t even get anything whenever I win first place at Championships.”

Winning is something Simão has done a lot of. He’s a 4-time Angolan National Champion and has won a total of 18 medals in his career so far—although he sheepishly admits to losing some of those medals. However, Simão doesn’t need a physical medal to represent the hard work behind his achievements. What matters more is realizing the dream he and his father (who passed away seven years ago) have wanted for so long. He wants to be successful in his sport and put Angola on the map, but most importantly, he wants to make his country proud. 

“I want to be the pride of Angolan Africans and Black guys,” Simão said. “I want people to be so happy and proud to see that I am like them and achieving my dreams.”

Simão, who in his free time enjoys watching movies, learning English, doing graphic design work, and teaching his friends about all the good things life has to offer, knows he will likely have to leave Angola in the near future if he wants to become a professional athlete. He has his eyes set on the United Kingdom, the United States, Portugal or Australia as potential destinations.

And when the day comes and his tumbling days are over, Simão hopes to become a coach and help athletes who are less fortunate. It’s a position he’s all too familiar with. “I’d love to have my own gymnastics center to help the talents without the conditions to train and study,” he said.

Simão is an inspiration to us all; a real example of somebody who believes in his abilities and makes the most of what he has—unwilling to let anything get in his way.

“I believe God has something special for me before I die,” Simão said. “I’m a dreamer. I believe everything is possible.”

So far, no obstacle has been too big for Simão to tackle. With a little bit of courage, determination, and hard work–anything is possible. Alexandre Simão is proof. 

Photos courtesy of Alexandre Simão

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