Gianna Velarde is set to become the first Peruvian woman to compete in the Dakar Rally in the motorcycle category, an enormous challenge she could never have imagined when at age 15 she rode a motorcycle for the first time - and there found the strength to overcome cancer .
"The motorcycle gave me a lot of strength, freedom and independence. Discovering all those things at that stage probably makes you a very powerful woman in a few years," Velarde told EFE in an interview.
"The motorcycle was my escape valve, my means of feeling strong and above all, feeling that I was a winner," she said.
On those two wheels, Velarde was able to withstand the 16 rounds of chemotherapy and 32 radiation treatments she received to eliminate a cancer of the lymph nodes.
"I suddenly saw I could zoom up the same hills as the men. With my helmet on, nobody knew I was a woman. I was one more in the pack. And that helped me a lot," she said.
Now 24, Gianna still has the character of the cocky girl who disobeyed her mom and learned to ride a motorcycle with her dad, an experience that turned her life around on the sand dunes south of Lima.
"With my wig and helmet, I sped around and around, I fell and came out covered in sand, but I came out feeling happy, and that was something I hadn't felt for a long time," she recalled.
Similarly, Gianna's parents tried to persuade her not to compete in the 2019 Dakar Rally, but then stopped and are now the first to cheer her on.
"The Dakar has really united my family. For me, Dakar is a chance to face my own demons and start a new chapter in my life," Velarde said.
"I'm sure the Gianna who finishes this Dakar will be a very different person and that excites me about all the experiences I'm bound to go through," she said.
Her first rally was the Inca Challenge last September, when "everything happened to me." At one point overheating and a jammed clutch made her wait for her bike to "cool off so I could continue climbing the dunes," she said.
"The second day I ran out of gas and the third day, at 2km (1 1/4 miles) from the finish line, the battery gave out," the Peruvian said.
Despite the many accidents, Velarde kept going: "I didn't feel bad physically nor incapable. I navigated well and the times I got lost I was able to get back on track. Aside from any mechanical failures, I can do well at Dakar."
Whether she finishes the 2019 Dakar Rally or not, Gianna Velarde promised to keep up her university studies and her volunteer work of teaching motorcycle riding to poor children and those with cancer, to whom she wishes to transmit the same passion and feeling of empowerment that motorcycles give her.