Cross-country mountain biker Sofia Gomez Villafane eyes 2020 Olympics
On Sunday, April 5, Sofia Gomez Villafane finished fifth overall at the Soldier Hollow Bike Festival, a cross-country mountain biking stage race.
It was another step in Villafane’s climb toward her goal of racing in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Gomez Villafane lives in Daniel, just outside of Heber. She’s 25 years old, a part-time administrator for Ritual Chocolate, and Argentina’s current cross-country mountain biking national champion. She is currently ranked 61 among the world’s top female cross-country racers by the International Cycling Union.
But she didn’t think of herself as a seriously competitive cyclist until recently, and only now is the prospect of competing on the world’s biggest stage starting to feel attainable.
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“It’s scary,” she said. “It’s not a dream that I’ve ever had.”
Now that it seems within reach, she’s going for it.
Gomez Villafane is slender with a narrow face and dark hair. On Saturday, May 4, after the third stage of the four-stage Bike Festival, she was sporting a strong sunglasses tan, and wore the powder blue of Argentina’s flag striped across a team jersey with her sponsors – Stan’s No Tubes, Pivot Cycles and Maxxis.
Gomez Villafane spent the first 12 years of her life growing up in Esquel, Argentina, a town of just over 30,000 people in the eastern valleys of the Andes. Growing up, her mother, who is American, was a school principal and her father was a veterinarian for the Argentine military’s horses.
By age 12, Gomez Villafane’s three older siblings Matias, Ana and Julian (She’s the fourth oldest of six), had moved to the United States for college. Her parents saw better economic opportunity in the U.S., so they moved to Los Gatos, California, in the southern Bay Area.
“Coming to the U.S. at such an early age was a bit of a shock,” Gomez Villafane said. “I was a really shy kid at school because I was afraid of mispronouncing things, and I did not like the fact that I had an accent. I think my first year of school I maybe raised my hand less than 10 times.”
Her brother Matias discovered mountain biking for the family. He promised Gomez Villafane’s older sister, Carolina, that he would invest in half of her bike if she wanted to race. Carolina did, and when Sofia entered high school two years later, she followed in both of their tracks.
By Gomez Villafane’s description, she was good but not great at biking, and her league, the Norcal High School Cycling League, was hyper-competitive.
“If you were winning those races you more than likely were going to win a junior national championship,” she said. “I put so much focus into my ability to perform at the High School level that I was not having much fun on the bike, as every day I would see it as a training day not as a fun day on the bike.”
Nevertheless, she got good enough that her riding earned her a scholarship to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and she used her cycling in the USA Cycling’s National Collegiate Cycling Association to help earn a degree in exercise science and a minor in business administration.
She and her boyfriend, Keegan Swenson, met through mountain biking in 2012. He moved to Durango and the two trained together, and they have been together since. (Swenson, another local rider, placed first at the SoHo Bike Festival).
When Gomez Villafane graduated in 2016, the two moved back to Park City, Swenson’s hometown.
For a year, they lived with Swenson’s parents.
She joined the Summit Mountain Bike program when she moved to the area and competed in elite races, mainly in California.
“I’d be getting 24th, 26th, kind of way off pace,” she said.
In 2016, she finished 16th in a US Cup in San Dimas, California, and took 31st at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California. She also took 29th at the cross-country Junior World Championships in Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic, as a U23 rider.
In 2017 she started competing as an independent racer. She and Swenson moved in with fellow elite cyclist Evelyn Dong in Daniel, who took seventh overall in the SoHo Bike Festival. The three keep each other honest about their workouts, and live similar lifestyles.
That year, her results started to jump up. She took ninth at the Sea Otter Classic, placed 11th in a Continental Cup in Cochabamba, Bolivia, took 34th at a World Cup in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada, and third in the Argentine National Championships.
Last year, she joined the Stan’s Pivot Pro Team and she stepped up her game again, taking first among her Argentine competitors at nationals, eighth at the Sea Otter Classic and 20th at the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup. She also took second in Soldier Hollow Pro XCT (which would become the bike festival).
“It’s pretty amazing,” she said of wearing her country’s colors in races, a privilege she earned through her national championship win. “Having your country’s jersey is an honor and it’s really cool to be able to stand on a podium, especially in some of those California races where you are standing with the current world champ, or previous world champ or people that have stood on world cup podiums. I think representing your country at an international level is something really special.”
But going for the grand prize, the Olympics, is still going to be difficult. If she qualifies, it will likely be through her nation. Argentina is currently ranked 13th, meaning it could only take one racer. Though that could end up being Gomez Villafane, it could also be one of her teammates, namely Agustina Maria Apaz or Paula Quiros, who have a higher standing in UCI rankings, even if they don’t have the current national title.
“It’s really nerve-wracking,” Gomez Villafane said of training toward the Games. “When I started training hard four years ago, my coach always said how she was going to build me up for the 2020 Olympics. I was like ‘She’s crazy. I am just going to college, I am not fast at all.’”
The final stage of that effort means racing more World Cups, so long as Gomez Villafane can find enough support to cover the cost of competing around Europe. Those races offer more UCI points, and will help to build her and Argentina’s international ranking. (If Argentina breaks into the top seven, it would be able to take two racers). She will also be competing in the cross-country World Championships in Quebec on Aug. 21 through Sept. 1 this year.
“It’s a support factor,” Gomez Villafane said competing at the next level. “You need to pay for a mechanic, you need to find lodging, and air tickets are really expensive. You’re flying with your bike and that can be anywhere from $100 to $200 dollars per way.”
Tokyo is still a long way off for her, but she said her professional life is starting to materialize.
“Its something I’m slowly growing into,” she said.
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It’s going to be at least another month before Summit County’s high school athletes have any chance of getting onto the field again.