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Teen lifter lays down challenge to sevens legend

Article by SHONTELLE MATANO (LockerRoom)

She’s only in her first year at high school, but Olivia Selemaia is already a Commonwealth champion weightlifter, who’s taking on a rugby legend.

Thirteen-year-old Olivia Selemaia and former All Black Sevens captain DJ Forbes have issued each other a challenge.

The pair met and got to hang out together at the Pacific Games in Samoa in July. Forbes was there as athlete support for the New Zealand team, and Selemaia was there as a competitor in weightlifting.

Selemaia, who’s in her first year of high school at Sancta Maria College in Auckland, was crowned a double Oceania and Commonwealth youth champion in the 55kg category. She lifted 80kgs in the clean and jerk and 61kgs in the snatch, for a combined total of 141kgs – more than double her own weight.

Forbes then threw down the gauntlet to Selemaia: to clean and jerk 90kgs. In return, Selemaia challenged Forbes to lift 100kgs. They are goals that they’re still both working to achieve.

Along with her gold medals, Selemaia also left Samoa with the support and guidance of Kiwi sporting legends like Forbes, and former world champion discus thrower Beatrice Faumuina, who was there representing New Zealand at a Pacific Sports Ministers meeting.

Walking around Apia Park in the electric atmosphere of the Pacific Games opening ceremony, with the roaring of fans and the rhythm of Samoan drums, it was like a homecoming for the Kiwi-born Samoan Selemaia, who had both nations cheering her on at the Games.

The vibrant occasion marked the start of Selemaia’s first international weightlifting competition.

Thirteen-year-old Olivia Selemaia lifts 77kg in her second attempt at the clean and jerk at the Pacific Games in Apia. Photo: NZOC

In some respects, Selemaia is like any other kid – she loves listening to music, that will hype her up before a competition, and enjoys a good meal of pasta after a workout. Yet, even though she’s still so young, she trains like a professional athlete.

She says she doesn’t really think about what she’s accomplished in a short space of time. “I wouldn’t say I’m good right now. I still have a lot of stuff to improve on,” she says modestly.

The quiet-natured teen has only been doing Olympic weightlifting seriously since last September. Every time she steps onto the stage, she becomes “a whole new person”.

Her smile, even in the middle of a clean and jerk, says it all about who she is.

The Year 9 student admits she doesn’t like performing in front of many people, so weightlifting has helped her build confidence.

As she continues to work hard towards her next goals, she remembers back to when she was lifting 15kgs at nine years of age.

That was when Selemaia got into crossfit with her mother. After finding a passion for lifting, her parents encouraged her to get better by joining the Papatoetoe Olympic Weightlifting Club.

“It was basically to improve on my lifting for crossfit, but it became something more than that,” Selemaia says.

In her first club weightlifting competition, she made six out of six lifts and placed fifth. She went into it not expecting to place highly, but was motivated by her desire to be the best.

In just her third competition, at this year’s Auckland championships, Selemaia lifted 75kg in the clean and jerk and 58kg in the snatch, making her the U20 Auckland champion. That saw her qualify as a youth lifter at the Commonwealth and Oceania championships, which were part of the Pacific Games.

With family from New Zealand, Australia and Samoa watching her in Apia, Selemaia’s debut on the international stage was one to remember. She broke three New Zealand U15 records and three NZ youth records en route to clinching her two gold medals. It was only the second time that Selemaia had hoisted 80kg.

“It was really fun because I got to interact with professionals,” she says of her Pacific Games experience. “I was happy because of my clean and jerks, but I could’ve done better on my snatches. I’ll just have to learn from that.”

Selemaia’s ability to remain disciplined and have a “never satisfied” mentality has helped her to stay consistent. Before every competition, she says she gets quite nervous, sometimes not wanting to compete. But with some advice from her coach, Simon Kent, she is able to calm down and focus on the goal ahead.

In Apia, she was so excited with her first lift that she dropped the bar before the judges signaled the all clear, resulting in a no lift. It could have thrown her, but she managed to recover and carry on with her record-smashing performance.

“It’s very nerve-racking and my coach helps me because I like to move around a lot to get rid of my nerves. But that’s what makes me even more nervous, so he just tells me to relax, don’t think about anything and just lift the bar,” she says.

Kent says Selemaia’s strength is her self-awareness and her ability to learn quickly.

“She’s very coachable,” he says. “Her enthusiasm for the sport is also a massive plus, and it’s something I want to see remain as the major reason that she lifts.

“It’s very easy to forget Olivia is only 13. So the main focus at such a young age is to keep it fun and develop her love for the sport.”

The youngest member of her weightlifting club, Selemaia says she loves everything about it, especially “the lifting and the support I get from my gym members, because we’re one big family”.

From Papatoetoe, Selemaia is part of her school’s kapa haka group and, when she’s not in the gym, she loves spending time with her family and friends. Her family are very proud of her and her exceptional work ethic.

She credits both Kent and Alvin Smith, her coach at CrossFit OFB in Otara, for continuing to push and motivate her. She also looks up to fellow New Zealand weightlifter Stella Hampton.

“Watching other people lift and to see how long they train and how far they get is pretty cool,” Selemaia says.

With many years ahead of her, she is taking it one day at a time, knowing that she never expected to be where she is today. At the moment, she says, she doesn’t have any long-term goals. Her next major competition is the national championships in November.

Selemaia is grounded in her Samoan and Kiwi roots and although she doesn’t quite know what her future in weightlifting looks like, the youngster is thankful to be in the position she’s in.

“I don’t really think about it, I just lift the bar,” she says.

It’s not a bad philosophy for life.