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Lately, Sofia Gomez Villafañe has been trying to post on social media in English and Spanish, and when she forgets the Spanish bit, her Argentinian always fans let her know.
“My Spanish-speaking followers have increased a lot, and I’m blown away by the amount of support fans will give riders,” she told VeloNews. “They’re complete strangers! In the U.S. you know you have fans, but they don’t engage quite as much. It’s been really cool, to see all the replies to my posts and getting messages after a big race.”
The fact that she has built such a rapport with fans in Argentina and South America — where the 27-year-old has not lived for 15 years — is more than just cool. In many ways, it’s the culmination of Gomez Villafañe’s journey as a person and professional athlete.
Now, that journey has taken her to Tokyo, where she’ll become the first woman to represent Argentina in the cross-country MTB race since the 2004 games. While there is victory in that alone, the more important accomplishment is invisible: for many years, torn between the pressure of having to identify with one country versus another both on and off the bike, Gomez Villafañe is going to the Games knowing exactly where she belongs.
Fitting in in the USA
Gomez Villafañe moved from Argentina to Los Gatos, California when she was a young teen, and back then, calling attention to what made her unique presented more risk than reward.
“Back then, being different wasn’t so ‘cool,’ she said. “When I moved to the U.S., I’d seen everything from the movies — popular girls, mean girls, cheerleaders. The town that my parents moved to had a lot of wealth, but we moved in with my grandpa into a one-bedroom apartment. Now, diversity like that is more celebrated, back then I don’t think it was. I did everything possible to fit in.”
Part of fitting in meant trying to shed her accent as soon as possible. The more American she sounded, Gomez Villafañe said, the more American she felt.
At 15, she started mountain biking with California’s NorCal high school league, following in the footsteps of her older siblings. Eventually, riding led her to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado where she committed to her studies, and during her senior year, to also going pro. For all intents and purposes, she was living a more American dream than she ever imagined as a shy, recently-arrived 12-year-old.
However, in terms of bike racing, Gomez Villafañe was still very much an Argentinian.
In 2012, the then-18-year old represented Argentina at the Pan-American Continental MTB Championships in Mexico.
“That defined my racing nationality for the UCI,” she said. “I didn’t have any idea about it. I got citizenship when I was 19, after that, I raced with a USA code. I really thought I was American for racing.”
It wasn’t until Cyclocross World Championships in 2016, where Gomez Villafañe was registered to race as a U23 that she realized that her jersey would feature Argentinian pale blue and white rather than the U.S. stars and stripes.
Integrándose en Argentina
As Gomez Villafañe pursued her professional MTB — and for a time, ‘cross — career, her racing nationality only came into play when she competed on the world stage.
In 2017, she organized her own privateer program with Pivot Cycles and raced her way to top finishes at Sea Otter and Missoula Pro XCT. She would stay with the various iterations of Stan’s-Pivot-Maxxis team until it folded in 2019; she currently rides for the Clif Pro Team.
Over the past few years, Gomez Villafañe has blossomed into one of the best XC mountain bikers in the world, no matter which flag is flying. In 2018, she became Argentinian national champion, a win she repeated in 2019. That year, she also swept the illustrious Epic Rides series domestically.
Although the Olympics had never really been on Gomez Villafañe’s radar as a child (“I don’t think I really even knew of the Olympics, it just wasn’t something that my family watched,” she said), her coach, American Carmen Small, had planted the seed in 2016, when the pair began working together in Durango. It was no secret that Gomez Villafañe’s nationality was part of the plan.
“Obviously choosing to stay Argentinian makes it easier for me to qualify for the Olympics,” she said. “I probably would have been on the U.S.’ long team list, but I’m not at the same level of Erin, Chloé, Kate, and Haley. I just haven’t had the opportunities they’ve been given through USA Cycling.”
Nevertheless, just because Gomez Villafañe’s results and nationality were lining up for a shot at Tokyo didn’t mean that she felt good about the plan.
In fact, she struggled with it.
“I didn’t want Argentinian people to think that I was taking advantage of the situation or that I was this girl that didn’t speak Spanish,” she said.”My Spanish is a little bit rusty when I’ve been in Utah for a while or not around my family. I always had it in my head that people wouldn’t accept me. I mean, I fly in to race [at Argentina’s] nationals.”
In her banner year of 2019, Gomez Villafañe raced to a silver medal the Pan-American continental champs in Peru. Her second-place finish got a lot of attention on Argentinian social media and sport channels, but the more important result was the relief she felt when an Argentinian commentator highlighted the uniqueness of her life story.
“He said to me, ‘how cool is it that you have dual citizenship and you live in America and you found cycling in America yet you still choose to represent us,'” Gomez Villafañe said. “I think that took a lot of the mental pressure off.”
Coming full circle
While being chosen to represent Argentina in Tokyo at the Olympic Games while she still continues to race as an American at home could have thrown Gomez Villafañe back into the spiral of wondering where she belongs, she’s decided to put that way of thinking in the past.
“Now that I’m no longer in high school, I’m older and more mature, I’m more proud of my background and my history and my journey that’s taken me here,” she said. “It’s definitely a full circle with a lot of growth and some bad choices.”
In fact, Gomez Villafañe has chosen to be an ambassador for both Argentina and the U.S.A. At home, she tries to incorporate more Spanish in her day-to-day goings on, from using snippets of the language with her teammates to making bilingualism the norm in her social media posts. She celebrates what she used to scorn.
Gomez Villafañe also realizes that she has the opportunity to inspire cyclists in Argentina. She is an advocate for encouraging South American athletes to consider moving to the United States where they might get better results and have more contact with unique sponsorship opportunities than in Europe.
And for herself, Gomez Villafañe now knows what she’s looking for. With Clif closing its doors at the end of the year, Gomez Villafañe is on the hunt for a new team. Finding one that appreciates — and encourages — her bi-culturalism is a high priority.
“I want to go race early season in Argentina because that’s really important there,” she said. “I also want to ride my bike in the town where I was born. I’ve never ridden a bike there. I want to see the place I grew up in the way I live my life now.”
In Tokyo, Gomez Villafañe gets to combine the best of both of her worlds.