Olivia Shililifa – reaching for the stars – The Namibian

OLIVIA Shililifa’s cycling career has been growing steadily and after winning the national u23 road race title at the end of January, she is now aiming to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The 22-year-old Shililifa’s progress has been quite remarkable bearing in mind that she only took the sport up seriously four years ago when she joined the after-school Physically Active Youth organisation in Katutura. She joined their cycling programme and fell in love with the sport.

She soon showed promise and when she reached the podium of the FNB schools development league seven months later, she was selected for the Namibian team that competed at the Spurs Schools Mountain Bike League in South Africa.

“I really fell in love with cycling when they selected me to represent Namibia. That gave me a different perspective on my career and how I saw myself and from there all I can remember is having goals and having to achieve those goals,” she said.

More accolades followed as she won the junior women’s silver medal at the national championships in 2020, and then winning gold in the u23 category in 2021. Last year she came second behind Monique du Plessis, but at this year’s nationals on 29 January, she regained the u23 title, beating Du Plessis by six seconds after a gruelling 115km road race.

That was a special moment in her career, Shililifa said.

“Winning the national jersey meant a lot to me. I didn’t have the best race with the time trial on Friday, I panicked and the legs were just not there, but coming to Sunday was more of allowing God to do his will and listening to him, that made it way easier,” she said.

“I also listened to my coach Japhet Amukushu and followed the game-plan, and racing with the Olympian Vera Looser is always an inspiration for me. I look up to her and when you’re with her in the race, it’s an amazing feeling and I really start to believe that there is progress,” she said.

After her steady progress in Namibian cycling, Shililifa received an invitation to join professional the Canyon//SRAM Generation cycling team in Europe last year, and she said it was a life-changing experience.

“I can say it has been the best experience of my life, having to go abroad and to race abroad, which is really scary. I’ve learnt a lot, there are so many opportunities and learning and taking back every little thing that you do in a race, it’s really amazing,” she said.

“It’s a German team but it’s based in Girona, Spain and they do races all over Europe. They have two teams – the world tour team and the continental team, which is their development team, that I am part of,” she added.

Her first season in Europe was not easy and was a big adaptation, but she persevered and will join the team again later this year for her second season.

“It has been amazing to see myself grow, because I’m normally a shy person, I’m not someone that likes being in a large crowd of people, but cycling has given me confidence to make new friends and it gave me a different perspective on life. It gave me a voice that I never had, I was always very silent, but with all my achievements, it gave me a voice to speak out, because of the confidence that I got from cycling,” she said.

Olivia did not have an easy childhood, and was brought up by a single-parent mother, who is a big inspiration for her and has become her number one fan.

“I’m the last born, I’m the only girl after three boys, and when my dad died my mom raised two of us from a very young age, my older brothers grew up in Tsumeb. She’s a single parent but she has given me so much support. She played a major role in my cycling growth and achievements, and she is my biggest supporter,” she said.

“Coming from a sport background herself made it easier for me to try and be the best version of myself, because I’m so inspired by what she does and the type of woman she is, raising two kids on her own, it’s really amazing,” she added.

Olivia is now aiming to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games and her coach Amukushu said her development as a cyclist has been a blessing.

“Her development phase really required patience – Olivia knew how to operate a bicycle, but she didn’t know how to cycle and we had to teach her how to change gears and ride properly. So it’s very good to see the level that she is operating at now, because that’s the vision one always had and to see it come to pass is such a blessing,” he said, adding that he believes she can qualify for the Olympics.

“The chances are there and it has always been the goal of the founders of PAY, to go to the Olympics, be it the Costa Seibeb’s, the Xavier Papo’s or us. We never got there, but the dream continues with Olivia and the new generation. I believe that Olivia has a big chance of going to the Olympics and that is what we are aiming towards,” he said.

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