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Portrait: Sofia Gomez Villafañe

The elite XC racer is the first female mountain biker to compete in the Olympics for Argentina since 2004. Her qualification marks a huge life goal, but has also surfaced questions for the Utah-based rider about how to connect with a place she hasn't lived in over a decade.

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It should have been simple for Sofia Gomez Villafañe. Standing on the podium at the 2019 Pan American Games, in Lima, Peru, she’d just won a silver medal in women’s XC mountain biking. But instead of being lost in euphoria, she was lost in identity. South American media swarmed the then-25-year-old Argentine to claim her as their own. Meanwhile, Gomez Villafañe grappled with the fact she’d left there 13 years earlier, had learned to ride entirely in the U.S., and had lived there ever since. Her Spanish had lost the sharpness of its edges, and she struggled to find the exact words to express herself to the cameras. Sports reporters told her what an honor it was that she chose to identify as Argentinian. But that wasn’t really something she’d chosen.

Gomez Villafañe emigrated from Esquel—a small town in the Patagonia region of Argentina—to Los Gatos, California, when she was 12. She became a full-fledged American citizen at the age of 19, and eventually raced collegiate events out of Fort Lewis College, in Durango, Colorado. But when she went on to qualify for the World Championships, the UCI (World Cup racing’s organizing body) gave her a call with some news. Because she’d raced the Pan American championships in Mexico when she was 17, and first got her UCI license then, when she was Argentinian, that would now define her nationality for the rest of her racing career.

Fast forward two years from that 2019 podium, and the 27-year-old is now en route to the Tokyo Olympics as the first woman to represent Argentina in XC mountain biking since 2004. Moreover, she’s going as the only Argentinian mountain biker. Putting aside her rise from collegiate racer to one of the top women in the world in only a few short years—an ascension that would leave even the sturdiest of minds dizzy—Gomez Villafañe now also has to carry the hopes of a country she’s not sure she belongs to, and reckon with her very sense of self when she races.

Sofia Gomez VillafañeSofia Gomez Villafañe on her way to qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics at the Nove Mesto World Cup stop in May.

The fourth child of six, Gomez Villafañe came to the U.S. with her parents and younger siblings in 2006. Her older brother and sister had already moved for college at that point, so her parents chose to bring the rest of the family to follow. But it wasn’t a very smooth transition. Her folks had poured all their money and resources into getting green cards, and things were tight for the family on arrival. They landed in a one-bedroom apartment, in which the kids slept in the living room. The family slowly started climbing the American social ladder, though, until they eventually bought a home of their own in 2012. Gomez Villafañe says it was a version of the American dream. But she also recalls being very shy throughout those years. At school, she shrunk under the largeness of American culture. Her class back home only had 15 students in it, in California she was one out of 300.

“My first year, I think I said 10 words in class,” she remembers, “I had friends, but I think they felt bad for me because I didn’t actually have anyone else, and they would let me have lunch with them. But I would just sit there and listen, because I wasn’t comfortable talking with an accent. I wanted to disassociate myself [from Latin America] as much as possible just to fit in.”

Everything from that point on became a determined process to self-assimilate. And it worked. She did well academically, and lost her accent quickly. And though she never quite found herself socially in school, she did on two wheels.

“My brother found me a bike on Craigslist that was $500. It was not fancy at all,” she explains. “But the bike helped a lot, because it was something not many people did in my school. It was a way to not fit into the cookie cutters of what high school is like.”

Both her older brother and sister had raced bikes (road and mountain) to elite levels before her. In their footsteps, she got into racing through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). When she was 15, she got a part-time job at a law firm to help pay for it all. Her work ethic was a trait she’d never shed. When she later moved to Durango, Colorado, to attend Fort Lewis College, she got another part-time job, this time at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Though her older brother, Julián, helped get her started in racing, and her parents were able to help a tiny bit with school, she otherwise always paid her own way. (She would eventually crush $30,000 in student debt mostly with race winnings.)

In the midst of studying full time, working part time, and racing, she gained the attention of her coach, Carmen Small—a decorated competitive cyclist in her own rite, and now an elite trainer. Small told Gomez Villafañe she could get her to the Olympics. It was a lofty goal, but Gomez Villafañe decided to give it a try. As she smashed through all her own benchmarks, won races and mixed with the best ladies in the world, got picked up by sponsors and eventually landed with Clif Bar and Specialized Bicycles, she found herself excelling in a way she hadn’t envisioned. Her success came so quickly it was like a confrontation. She had earned a degree in exercise science, and was considering a master’s, but decided to put that aside to pursue the Olympics now—as an Argentine.

“The hard part for me is I discovered cycling in the U.S. And, yes, I raced nationals as a junior down in Argentina a few times, but when I wanted to go back and race elite nationals, and represent the country, I was like, “How can I identify as an Argentine?” Yes, when I’m at home with my parents I speak Spanish. But most people who would talk to me would have no idea I’m not an American. I’m not American-born, I should say.”

For Gomez Villafañe, the road to Tokyo doesn’t just require the most diligent training of her life, but also the reversal of her journey to America. In many ways, it’s a far more arduous path to navigate.

“I have my life in the U.S., and I could not imagine not living where I live now,” she tells me. “How can I have the people in the cycling community [in Argentina] embrace me as part of their sport and one of their athletes when I don’t even live there?”

One her insecurities is people believing she gamed her way to the Olympics through dual citizenship. It’s true she wouldn’t have made the U.S. team based on points totals, but compared to the women she beat out to get get on Argentina’s team (which she did), her points were much harder won. Racing in South America is less competitive, and Gomez Villafañe went up against the fiercest women in the world to get her qualifying results.

“I think most of it I’ve just made up in my head,” she admits. “The conflict about how people don’t approve of me, or people don’t think I’m truly Argentinian. And they see me taking advantage of the system, or whatever it might be.”

When everything is peeled back, the harder thing for her to accept is that Argentina actually does rally behind her. It’s something she works hard to feel worthy of.

“The amount of messages I got when I got my selection for Tokyo, I got so overwhelmed,” she says. “But how do I connect with a whole group of people that are from a country I was born in, without me living there?”

The answer has been social media, where she now curates every post in both Spanish and English. She also infuses them with personality far beyond sport. One of her trademarks has become her mid-training and pre-race dance routines. She even got her boss, Clif Bar team manager Waldek Stepniowski, to dance with her on Instagram.

“I do love to dance,” she says beaming. “When I was little I would always steal my brother’s stereo and have these solo dance parties. I think my biggest dream in life is to be part of ‘Dancing With The Stars.’ I do think that having these little videos that show more of a relatable side of an athlete are amazing, and in all honesty a whole lot more fun to make than just taking a selfie at the top of a mountain.”

Truly, Gomez Villafañe doesn’t hold herself with the same intensity as athletes of a similar caliber. Her mode feels calm, considered and introspective—antithetical to the cold ruthlessness you often get from elite athletes with major goals in their crosshairs. One of the biggest differences grounding her is the fact she still holds a job. She’s currently an administrative manager at the Ritual Chocolate Company in Park City, Utah. (Gomez Villafañe moved to Utah after college with her partner Keegan Swenson, another acclaimed XC racer who only narrowly missed qualifying for Tokyo for Team USA.)

“Do I need to have this job? No I do not,” she says pointedly. “But I really like it, and I think it kind of gives me another channel to be successful in and have something that’s meaningful. I’ve seen a lot of female cyclists that experience success on the bike, and they’ve had part-time jobs, quit the job, they go full into cycling, and then they don’t perform. And I don’t know if that’s just by luck of the draw or what it is. But I really enjoy having something else that takes my mind away from cycling and gives me more of a balanced life.”

Gomez Villafañe at the 2020 World Champs in Leogang, Austria, where she placed 26th. 

“I have my life in the U.S., and I could not imagine not living where I live now. How can I have the people in the cycling community [in Argentina] embrace me as part of their sport and one of their athletes when I don’t even live there?”

As we talk over Facetime in late May, she takes her time and is remarkably open, while she waits for it to warm up outside to go train. Tokyo is notoriously hot and humid, so she’s considering flying to Hawaii to get acclimatized before the Games. The hitch is she doesn’t know anyone there, and is really enjoying the comforts of home after a busy winter and spring of racing. She’s made the decision to forego World Cup races leading up to the Olympics to instead focus on a regimen that doesn’t have such weighted outcomes.

“I just have to remind myself that becoming an Olympian in four-plus months with the pandemic is already in itself a pretty big achievement,” she says. “It’s almost like Tokyo is a test, and to really look for Paris, which is in 2024. But it is the Olympics, I’m not going there to participate, I’m going there to compete.”

For her coach, Small, this lucid line of thinking is Gomez Villafañe’s greatest strength.“Sofia is a rare athlete who has an unbelievable drive and a very good mental state,” she says. “She is super strong physically, but even more mentally. Not everyone has this ability. It’s something that sets her apart from other athletes. But believe me, Sofia is very intense. I think she is very good at being calm, but don’t mistake that for not having a big fire inside her that drives her every day.”

That’s handy, because there is also the context of the pandemic to contend with during these Games, too. Japan is a tight and regimented country, and its Covid protocols are extremely strict. As a result, it looks very likely that Gomez Villafañe won’t be able to bring a mechanic, because Argentina didn’t get the paperwork started in time.That means she will truly be on her own out there. Physically, at least. One of her biggest motivations remains her family. Above the support of anyone else, that’s what keeps her from feeling isolated and alone in a situation that could easily be described as a compound pressure cooker.

“I don’t know how much support she’s going to have from the Argentinian cycling federation,” says her older brother, Julián. “But I do know that all Argentines going to the Olympics, apart from soccer or popular disciplines, don’t have a lot of support either.”

He says the Basque blood running through her veins makes her stubborn and strong, though. And that, despite the fact her riding life has been 100 percent American, she’s more Argentinian than she realizes, and that will carry her. “I believe her heart belongs to the soil where she was born,” he continues. “So it’s cool to see how motivated and proud she is to represent Argentina in this coming Olympics.”

In the end, her family’s faith in her is the real thing that makes her believe she belongs in that one and only jersey. Nowhere is that reflected back to her more than through Julián’s three daughters, who all idolize their Olympian aunt.“It’s an honor,” Gomez Villafañe says self-assuredly. “And I don’t think it’s something that I have fully comprehended yet. Hopefully I can pave the path for a lot of other Argentinian cyclists. Not only female, but male as well.”

Photos: Michel Cerveny