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To become a top MTB pro, Sofia Gomez Villafañe learned to put herself first

It's Sofia Gomez Villafañe's time to shine.

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As she stood atop the podium and looked out at the crowd, Sofia Gomez Villafañe raised an oversized check for $10,000, the grand prize for winning the 2019 Oz Trails Off-Road, the final event on the Epic Rides series. Gomez-Villafañe beamed with confidence, and with good reason. She had outsprinted World Cup champion Kate Courtney in a tight battle on the swooping singletrack, and the victory also won her the overall series title.

A few hours later, Gomez Villafañe watched as Keegan Swenson, her longtime boyfriend and Stan’s-Pivot teammate, also stood on the final podium at the Oz Trails race. Swenson had finished second, and he raised his check, for $5,000.

The scene marked a turning point for Gomez Villafañe. It was confirmation that, at age 26, she had become one of the best professional racers in North America, a star with the ability to race in the Olympics. “Last year was a big turning point of OK, I’m no longer a rider who is looking to creep into the top 10,” Gomez Villafañe told VeloNews. “I’m now at the point where I’m looking to show up and race for the win.”

And it was confirmation of something else entirely. For years Gomez Villafañe had lived in the shadows of Swenson, whose professional career had taken off when the two were still teenagers. Now, after eight years together, Gomez Villafañe has become Swenson’s equal, both off and on the bike. This turning point came from years of training and hard work. And it also sprouted from a change in mindset within Gomez Villafañe about her place in the relationship. In order to realize her potential, Gomez Villafañe had to learn to prioritize her own racing ambitions and her own career above that of her partner.

“I had to learn to no longer be Sofia the girlfriend,” Gomez Villafañe said. “I had to think of myself as Sofia the professional racer and not just the partner.”

This transformation was harder than any race.

Gomez Villafañe sprint finish

Gomez Villafañe won the overall title on the Epic Rides series in 2019. Photo: Dave McElwaine

Love at first singletrack

Gomez Villafañe was born in Argentina’s Patagonia region and emigrated to Los Gatos, California, when she was 12; she holds dual citizenship with both countries but competes under the Argentinian flag in international competitions. The fourth of six children, she watched as her older siblings picked up mountain bike racing in high school.

Her older brother, Matias, convinced her sister, Carolina, to race, and Carolina’s success in the NorCal High School Mountain Bike League spread the racing bug to Sofia.

“Carolina was very good at it so naturally I’d go to the races with my family and I’d stay there all day,” Gomez Villafañe said. “It wasn’t a question of if I would race but rather when.”

It was through the U.S. mountain bike community that Gomez Villafañe met Swenson, who was then the rising star of the U.S. junior mountain bike racing scene. The two struck up a friendship on social media; Swenson lived in Heber City, Utah, and often traveled overseas to race with the U.S. national team. It wasn’t until the 2012 Sea Otter Classic that they went out on a first date. Swenson was so nervous that the date nearly ended in a disaster.

“I borrowed my parents’ truck and we stayed out pretty late and when I pulled into the parking garage the truck was too tall and I got it stuck,” Swenson said. “I had to let the air out of the truck tires. It was a huge fiasco.”

The two had an immediate connection with their love of cycling and the outdoors. So strong was the bond that Swenson followed Gomez Villafañe when she moved to Durango, Colorado, to pursue degrees in Exercise Science at Fort Lewis College. Gomez Villafañe raced on the collegiate squad for fun, and Swenson chased wins in the U.S. Cup and World Cup series. He had professional ambitions and she saw cycling as a hobby.

This difference in mindset was most apparent when the two attended races together. Like other pros, Swenson followed a meticulous pre- and post-race routine of warmup, warm-down, and recovery. Gomez Villafañe, by contrast, spent more time taking care of Swenson than she did preparing for her own events.

“I’d finish my race and then go to our tent to make sure he had everything — I was in the pit handing him water bottles and giving him the recovery drink at the finish line,” Gomez Villafañe said. “In reality I shouldn’t have helped him but he was my partner so I wanted to be there for him.”

Swenson said he appreciated Gomez Villafañe’s help, even if it was not required. At home, she squeezed her rides in during the early morning hours, before school and work, while Swenson rode later in the day. Over time, the dynamic impacted Gomez Villafañe’s perception of her place within the world of mountain bike racing. She was the girlfriend of Keegan Swenson, the Under-23 U.S. champion and a future Olympian. Sure, she raced, but it was just for fun.

And then, one day, everything changed.

Stan’s-Pivot team

Swenson (left) and Gomez Villafañe (right) have been together since they were teenagers; in 2018 and 2019 they were teammates on Stan’s-Pivot. Photo: Dave McElwaine

The fire ignited

Pro cycling fosters countless healthy and happy couples, even if the sport places very specific stresses on even the tightest bonds. The lifestyle is unquestionably selfish, with training, rest, and recovery overshadowing fun or romance. Two pro riders pursuing this lifestyle often discover some unforeseen stresses.

What stresses? The sport’s inequality is hard to ignore. Top male pros earn substantially more than their female counterparts. And there are teams and sponsorship opportunities available for Under-23 and budding pro men, while job opportunities for women at this age are virtually nonexistent.

In fact, it’s common for up-and-coming female riders to work part-time jobs for years before they land paying contracts in their mid to late 20’s.

Retired road racer and coach Carmen Small, who was married to the late mountain bike racer Ben Sonntag, says jealousy over salary and attention, plus the struggle to maintain one’s identity, are just two additional stresses that couples in the sport must overcome.

“You need to work on your relationship constantly,” Small said. “You can’t expect things to always work out fine.”

It was Small who met with Gomez Villafañe in 2015, her senior year at Fort Lewis College. A Durango native, Small would often train with the university’s female riders, and after one training session she was impressed by the strong rider from Argentina who refused to get dropped. Small invited Gomez Villafañe out for coffee and asked her if she had any ambitions to race professionally. She was surprised by the response.

“She said, ‘I’m Keegan’s girlfriend,’ and I asked her about her own goals,” Small said. “I don’t think anybody had ever asked her that question in that capacity.”

Small gave Gomez Villafañe a long-term training program that started with building her aerobic base. She took to it quickly and in 2015 won the collegiate national championships in mountain bike racing and cyclocross. What Gomez Villafañe lacked in technical descending she made up for with a strong anaerobic high end, and also a ferocious racing spirit.

“Tenacity — that’s what I think about with Sofia,” said Rose Grant, Gomez Villafañe’s former teammate. “When she’s in a race she just doesn’t give up.”

Sofia Gomez Villafañe warms up

Gomez Villafañe scored top cyclocross results on the U.S. national series. Photo: Wil Matthews

In 2016 Gomez Villafañe scored her first top-10 results on USA Cycling’s Pro XC series, and she finished sixth at the Grand Junction Off-Road round of the Epic Rides series. The latter result earned her a $600 check. The following year she traveled to Argentina to contest the national championships and finished 3rd. She won her national title for the first time the following year.

Small told Gomez Villafañe that she had the natural talent to qualify for the Olympics. It was the first moment when Gomez Villafañe envisioned a life in pro cycling.

“Carmen told me that in four years I’ll get you to the Olympics and I thought she was crazy,” Gomez Villafañe said. “I gave myself a deadline of 2020. If I didn’t make it to the Olympics or get paid to race my bike, then I would go and get a Master’s degree.”

Small saw confidence building in Gomez Villafañe. In calls with her client she asked about her relationship with Swenson, and how she balanced her training and racing with his. By then Gomez Villafañe and Swenson had relocated to Park City, Utah, where Gomez Villafañe oversaw the marketing at an artisanal chocolate company. Small pulled no punches when it came to racing preparation and cool-down.

“At one point I had to be like ‘Sofia, after your race you need to go home. You can’t cheer for Keegan anymore,’” Small said. “Go take care of yourself. Go rest. You have to look out for yourself. Do you want to be a professional or do you want to be Keegan’s girlfriend?”

Gomez Villafane at the 2019 Pan American Championships.

Gomez Villafañe took silver at the 2019 Pan American Championships. Photo: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

Into her own

After years of trial and error, Swenson and Gomez Villafañe have learned how to mesh their personal and professional lives. In the early years Swenson said he often tried to pass along advice on racing and riding, and eventually backed off.

“I had to learn — even if it was something that was driving me crazy — that she learns things like that on her own,” Swenson said. “I don’t tell her how to ride.”

During a typical day Swenson wakes up early and makes Gomez Villafañe breakfast before she goes out on her training ride. She tidies the house while he washes her bicycle and handles any maintenance. The two ride together but rarely tackle specific training sessions alongside one another.

“We tend to bicker if we ride together all the time because I’m a lot slower than him,” Gomez Villafañe said. “We had to find that one out.”

The two were teammates on the Stan’s No Tubes-Pivot squad in 2018 and 2019, and found out that they are better partners than they are teammates. For 2020 Gomez Villafañe signed with the Clif Pro Team, and both Swenson and Gomez Villafañe said it was for the best.

“I think it’s better for our relationship if we’re not teammates, that way we can focus 100 percent on the race weekend,” Swenson said.

And as the two learned how to accommodate each other’s professional career, it was Gomez Villafañe who stepped into the limelight, again and again. She blossomed into a top cyclocross racer on the domestic U.S. scene and won two UCI races in 2018. She won the Argentinian national cross-country titles in 2018 and 2019 and was on the short list to represent Argentina at the 2020 Olympics before the coronavirus pandemic delayed the games.

And throughout her progression, Gomez Villafañe was able to view herself as the decorated pro, not the partner of the decorated pro. After her races she warms down and eats a recovery meal, even if Swenson is racing. After all, that’s what pro riders do.

There are occasional deviations from the plan, of course.

As dusk fell on one of the 2019 Epic Rides short-track races, Gomez Villafañe completed her race and prepared to warm down. She saw Swenson on the start line, preparing for his own race. To her dismay, she saw he was wearing dark sunglasses. By contrast, she had raced with clear lenses and felt that they were an advantage in the darkening light.

Gomez Villafañe rolled over to Swenson and handed him her clear glasses, and then wished him good luck.

“In reality I probably should have just warmed down — he’s a grown man and can make his own choices,” Gomez Villafañe said. “At the end of the day he’s also my partner and I cannot help myself.”