Sofia Gomez-Villafañe was never set on becoming an elite mountain biker at a young age growing up in Esquel in the Patagonia region of Aregentina.
Her family moved to Los Gatos, California, when she was 12, and she started riding a mountain bike in a high school league at the age of 15.
It wasn’t until her senior year at Fort Lewis College in Durango where she fully dedicated herself to the sport. Now, she is going to the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo to represent her native country in the women’s cross-country mountain bike race.
“This is nothing I ever thought was possible,” she said this week while training for the Olympics in her new home of Heber City, Utah. “But each year, I have gotten stronger, and now here we are, going to the Olympics post pandemic.”
Going into the new Olympic cycle, Argentina was ranked outside of the International Cycling Union nation’s rankings for earning a spot in the Olympics. Three riders, including Gomez-Villafañe, set out to chase UCI points to earn one spot in Tokyo.
It didn’t come without some hard work and drama, as one rider, Paula Quirós, would test positive for EPO doping at the start of 2020 and was suspended. Unsure if all of her previous earned points would go away or not, Gomez-Villafañe thought there was a chance the nation would fall further in the rankings.
“She got suspended and a three-year ban, and that was a blow,” Gomez-Villafañe said. “We just didn’t know how long she had maybe been racing dirty. We hoped it was just that one time and that all of her previous points weren’t illegally earned. Luckily, her test came back from a point where we were able to keep her previous points.”
With a second-place finish at this year’s Pan-American Continental Mountain Bike Championships, the 27-year-old Gomez-Villafañe was in strong position to earn selection from her federation for the one Olympic spot allotted to the nation once it had enough qualifying points to send a rider.
And after a couple of finishes ahead of her closest competitor, Agustina Apaza, within Argentina at the early-season World Cups in Europe, selection was guaranteed.
“This is the first time in 17 years Argentina has had a woman represented at the mountain bike Olympics,” Gomez-Villafañe said. “This year, we also have no male there, so it is just me. I definitely have a bit of weight on my shoulders representing a whole country.
“Agustina is a close friend, and he had been trying to make the Olympics her entire life. She’s in her early 40s now. The whole process, we knew we would be happy no matter which one of us got the spot. I wouldn’t be here without her.”
Gomez-Villafañe said she never visited Durango before she enrolled at Fort Lewis. The 2016 graduate researched Durango online and thought it had a similar feel to her Patagonia upbringing.
“I wanted to get out of California and all the traffic,” she said. “I wanted to be in the mountains. I saw Fort Lewis had a good mountain bike program, and the pictures were pretty. I said, ‘That will be just fine,’ and decided to go to college there.”
Gomez-Villafañe got involved with the FLC cycling program, but her primary focus was on her studies in exercise science and business administration. She also had a job, as she wanted to become financially independent.
Her senior year, she fully committed to bike racing and enlisted the coaching help of Durango’s Carmen Small, a longtime professional road cyclist. Gomez-Villafañe finished her FLC cycling career with three collegiate mountain bike overall championships and a cyclo-cross national title as a senior.
“Watching Sofia grow has been better than any victory I ever had as an athlete,” Small said. The relationship between a coach and an athlete is always special. I have also learned a lot from Sofia in the past five years and won’t forget the growth we had as a team.“
After six months of working with Small, the two decided to keep working together and pursue the Olympics.
“When I first started working with Carmen, she was the one who had the idea of turning me from a collegiate racer into an Olympian by 2020,” Gomez-Villafañe said. “I thought she was crazy. But I decided to dedicate four years to it because I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted to do with my life yet in terms of a career.”
The partner of fellow pro mountain biker Keegan Swenson, the two both had Olympic dreams for 2020. But it was Durango’s Christopher Blevins who would earn selection ahead of Swenson for the one men’s spot from USA Cycling.
“We kind of stayed separate about the whole thing these last few years,” Gomez-Villafañe. “Obviously, I would love for him and I to be together at the Games. Unfortunately, that was not able to happen. He’s such a robot in a way. As soon as he wasn’t going to the Olympics, he switched his focus immediately to nationals and the Leadville 100 and Breck Epic, all these longer distance events where he shines. We celebrated my achievement of going and talked about his disappointment of not going. But like he said, Chris is going to go and have a good race, make the country proud, and he was happy to contribute to Chris’ ability to qualify.”
Swenson was happy to see Gomez-Villafañe earn her place after all the hard work.
“It all came together for her,” he said. “It was touch and go at times with the points system and all of that, but she got her points and put together the races she needed to. I am proud and glad it all came together for her in the end.”
Though Swenson won’t be there, Gomez-Villafañe will have plenty of supporters to lean on in Tokyo, from the three American women qualified for the race to Durango’s Blevins.
“I was just a little high school kid when she was tearing it up at Fort Lewis, so I didn’t get to know her very well when she was here,” Blevins said. “But she is half American, and we will definitely be sharing lines with her and wanting to help her succeed in Tokyo.”
Gomez-Villafañe will have to start from the back of the race at the Olympics because of the nation’s ranking. But she is eager to show her strength as the 42nd-ranked rider in the world.
“I enjoy being on the bike and racing. It comes from my natural love of the outdoors,” she said. “Whether it is a good day or a bad day for my mood or legs, if it is raining or if it is brutally hot like it is going to be in Tokyo, I enjoy the process of showing up every day, doing my best and seeing where my body can take me.”