What you need to know:
- She showed her promise by winning the Under-10 and U-12 Female Cross-Country ski titles at the Inter-Apennine Criterium and received award plaques from the Italian Winter Sports Federation (FISI) and Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) in Lazio-Sardinia
- Ongong’a says it was a year ago when she started dreaming of becoming the first African female cross-country skier to participate in the Winter Games
- Ongong’a says she is grateful and humbled to realise that she has made history as the first African and Kenyan female cross-country skier to ever qualify for the Winter Youth Olympic Games
Meet Ashley Tshanda Ongong’a, a Kenyan who is poised to become the first African female cross country skier at the 2024 Winter Youth Olympics Games.
Born in Subiaco, Italy in 2007 to a Kenyan father Dr Stephen Ogongo Ongong'a and Congolese mother Marie-Jeanne Kamba, Ashley Ongong’a will write that piece of history at the fourth edition of the quadrennial games that started on Friday and will run to February 1 in Gangwon, South Korea.
She qualified with French-Kenyan alpine skier Issa Laborde based on International Ski Federation (FIS) ranking of the Youth Olympic Games quota allocation as of December 18.
In a phone interview with Nation Sport from Italy, Ongong’a said her skiing journey began when she was four years old. She started competing in cross-country ski events at different levels a year later.
“During summer school holidays, my parents would enroll me for summer camp activities with a local ski club called Subiaco Skiers Group. All I was expected to do was learn to skate. However, during the first skating lesson, my instructor Camilla Cignitti noticed that I had a good skiing posture and asked if I wanted to learn cross-country skiing. I said yes and since that day I have been practicing this sport on a daily basis and I really love it,” Ongong’a says.
She showed her promise by winning the Under-10 and U-12 Female Cross-Country ski titles at the Inter-Apennine Criterium and received award plaques from the Italian Winter Sports Federation (FISI) and Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) in Lazio-Sardinia.
Best international ski schools
She also won the regional title at the Emilian Apennines Regional ski competition before proceeding to lift the Italian title at the national Pinocchio ski competition.
“In 2021, I participated in several ski competitions in Friuli Venezia Giulia Region, emerging amongst the top-10 and qualifying for the Italian Under-16 Female Championships in Lama Mocogno, Modena,” says Ongong’a.
In 2023, she took part in the Roller Ski World Cup in Val di Fiemme in Trentino and Cross Country FIS Forni Avoltri (both in Italy) in September and Cross Country FIS Planica in Slovenia and Cross Country FIS Sappada in Italy in December.
She says her love for cross-country skiing made her leave home and go study at Bachmann Sport College in Tarvisio, Italy.
Bachmann is one of the best international ski schools in Italy. She has been in this school since 2021.
The college combines scientific lower and upper secondary school with competitive winter sports. It has produced some of the best skiers in Italy who have competed in national and international winter youth sports competitions including the World Cup.
These include cross-country skier Andrea Gartner, 21, who also participated in the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland and alpine skier Mattia Casse, 33, who still participates in World Cup ski competitions.
Bachmann is a sports boarding school where students have daily lessons in the morning and then go for ski training in the afternoon.
Ongong’a’s main coach at Bachmann is Francesco Silverio (Franz). He is the man that Ashley says has always been convinced of her ability to participate in international cross-country skiing competitions.
“He repeatedly tells me that I have the skills of an Olympic athlete. I’m so lucky to have such a coach and mentor who believes in me, understands me and knows how to bring out the best in me. I’m very grateful to Franz for all he is doing to prepare me for the Winter Youth Olympic Games. He has been terrific challenging and encouraging me to work hard towards achieving this dream,” says Ongong’a.
Dream come true
Silverio is assisted by Andrea Colombo to hone the skills of the Italian-born Ongong'a. So, how excited is Ongong’a to compete at the 2024 Winter Youth Olympics? On December 19, Ongong’a says she woke up to receive the best news in her life as an athlete.
“I was so excited to receive an email from Francis Mutuku, the Secretary General of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (NOC-K), confirming that I have qualified to represent Kenya at the Winter Youth Olympic Games. It was like seeing light at the end of the tunnel. I've yet to realise that I’ve qualified to represent Kenya at the Gangwon 2024 Games.
Ongong’a says it was a year ago when she started dreaming of becoming the first African female cross-country skier to participate in the Winter Games.
“It was just a dream at that time. Now that dream is about to come true. I’m still struggling to believe it is happening because I’ve been working really hard over the years towards achieving this dream. I can now say that hard work pays.”
The conversation to attain that dream started last year when Ongong’a dad reached out to NOC-K and told them he had a daughter who was good in skiing and wanted the Kenyan sport body to help her compete in Olympics and world championships.
After several phone calls and emails NOC-K were convinced enough to give the young lass a shot.
Ongong’a says she is grateful and humbled to realise that she has made history as the first African and Kenyan female cross-country skier to ever qualify for the Winter Youth Olympic Games.
“News of my qualification brought immense joy to all Kenyans both at home and all over the world. I’ve since been receiving a steady flow of congratulatory and encouragement messages. It really feels nice to see many people happy because of my qualification,” she noted.
Sports Cabinet Secretary Ababu Namwamba led the celebrations by tweeting: “Hoooray Ashley Tshanda Ongong'a, brilliant young Kenyan athlete who has made history by qualifying for Cross-Country Skiing at the Winter Youth Olympics in Gangwon, South Korea.”
Ongong’a says she felt so happy to read Namwamba’s message and “I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to the CS for such a wonderful congratulatory message.”
She considers her qualification a beautiful present for Kenya, for her family, coach, friends, supporters and all who believe in her. “I’ll continue working hard in order to perform better at the Winter Youth Olympic Games as well as in all other competitions I’ll have a chance of taking part in,” she vows.
She really wants to make a mark in South Korea.
She underwent intensive training for most of last year, her focus firmly on the Youth Olympics.
“Now that I’ve officially qualified, my training is specifically targeted at preparing me to perform better. I took a short break for a few days to celebrate Christmas with my family. Immediately after Christmas, I went back to school to resume training and preparations for the Winter Olympic Games. I feel ready and look forward to the historic journey,” she said, eagerness written in her tone..
Ongong’a will represent Kenya in Gangwon together with Issa Laborde, an Alpine skier.
During a recent preparatory online meeting with NOC-K, Mutuku said something that made Ongong’a realise how important the participation of the two will be at these Olympic Games.
“He said the two of us will be flying the Kenyan flag as we represent more than 50 million Kenyans. It’s such a big responsibility and a great honour indeed,” she said.
“I also look forward to meeting and getting to interact with fellow athletes and coaches from all parts of the world at the Winter Olympic Games. That will be a unique opportunity for me to grow as a person and as an athlete.”
She of course has her role models in the sport.
“In these last two seasons I have re-evaluated (American cross-country skier) Jessie Diggins a lot. She has much to offer in terms of inspiration. She manages to convey joy even through TV interviews. The fact that she always has a smile on her face is very motivating, and she is always ready for teamwork.”
Twenty-four-year old Swedish cross-country skier Linn Svahn, 24, is another athlete Ongong’a looks up to.
“She is one of the brightest young stars in the world of cross-country skiing. She is truly inspiring and I greatly admire her determination and professionalism despite her young age.
How has Kenya supported her in her skiing career thus far?
“NOC-K acting as the National Ski Federation, played a pivotal role in my journey to the Winter Youth Olympic Games in South Korea. NOC-K has also given me financial and administrative support to participate in FIS races to get ranking points that earned me a qualification place,” explained Ashley.
Following a recommendation by NOC-K, along with alpine skier Issa Laborde, in summer 2023, Ongong’a underwent an intensive 14-day training camp in South Korea under the PyeongChang 2018 Legacy Foundation.
“NOC-K President Dr. Paul Tergat opened the camp. He motivated and encouraged us during the camp to pursue our dreams, setting the stage for our pursuit of participation in the Winter Youth Olympic Games,” noted Ashley.
Ongong’a was deeply moved by her first time visit to the NOC-K offices in Nairobi in August.
“It marked a significant moment as I received my official Team Kenya kit and was formally embraced as part of the Team Kenya family. That meeting was memorable to me. I’ll never forget the warm welcome I received from Mutuku and the NOC-K staff. I felt at home and part of a bigger family.”
She says she is happy that NOC-K has been constantly checking on her to find out how she is and the progress she is making on her training and to offer her moral encouragement. “It really feels nice to have such a caring team behind you,” noted Ashley.
NOC-K facilitated her travel to the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Gangwon.
Kenya has been represented at the Winter Olympics by Philip Boit in 1998 (Nagano, Japan), 2002 (Salt Lake City, USA) and 2009 (Turin, Italy). Boit, who is now 52 years old, competed in Cross Country skiing.
Austrian-Kenyan Sabrina Simader competed at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in the Alpine category.
Simader also took part at the Winter Youth Olympics in 2016 (Lillehammer, Norway).
Now there is Ongong’a, who, at just 16 years of age, looks to be going places.
The youth winter games were opened on Friday, with Ongong’a among a selected few young athletes standing next to IOC President Thomas Bach as he delivered his speech.
Ongong’a will first compete in women’s sprint free qualification on January 29 before taking part in the Women’s 7.5 kilometres classic qualification on January 30 at Alpensia Biathlon Centre.