Anna Zehnder: Embracing the Now

“It’s now or never,” says Dr. Anna Zehnder. After completing her medical studies in 2021, the Swiss athlete faced a pivotal choice. Instead of pursuing a medical career, she went all in on her dream of professional sports, seizing every opportunity to make it happen.

Written by
Sarah Bonner
min read
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Now or Never

“A year and a half ago, I would never have expected to be here doing XTERRA World Cups and be in a good position. With sports, it's always a bit of an unknown because you want to do well, you want to be consistent, but sometimes injury comes in the way or just life gets in the way and you never know,” Zehnder reflects.

The uncertainty she speaks of is deeply personal. In 2021, Zehnder lost her mother to cancer.

“She died of cancer after quite a short period of time. It was a tough time. I'm glad she saw me graduate. It really showed me that sometimes you think you have time in life, but you don't. It really did influence my decision to follow that dream at least for a bit and see where it goes. I don't know how many chances I have.”

At 28, Zehnder is acutely aware of the finite window for a professional sports career. “You cannot be a pro athlete until you are 80. So, I figured I'll do it now, see how it goes…I can always go back to medicine.”

With the season barely even half way, her bold decision is paying off. Currently ranked 6th overall in the World Cup, Zehnder's performance and confidence is improving with every race.



Early Inspirations and New Challenges

Zehnder's passion for sports began early, encouraged and inspired by her athletic parents and her aunt, Silvia Fürst, an Olympian and MTB world champion. She started with mountain biking, then swimming, and even tried rowing during high school. After a gap year in Australia, she was ready for a new challenge.

“I always had this interest or curiosity in triathlon. So I started going to early morning swim meetings. I did some riding around on a borrowed bike and, of course, running, which is easy to do when you’re traveling.”

Balancing her medical studies with training, Zehnder competed in a half Ironman, which led to a few full Ironman distances and numerous road races. In 2018, she joined the Basel Wildcats triathlon club and met her current coach.

“I thought it might be fun to go to the Olympics. It’s difficult to get slots in road triathlon so my coach said let’s do some duathlons to gain experience. So we started going to these multi-sport championships by World Triathlon where they have duathlon, aquathlon, cross duathlon, and cross triathlon. In 2022 in Bilbao I did the duathlon and the cross triathlon which was my first cross triathlon elite race—and from there, I really loved it.”



Overcoming Setbacks

Zehnder then shifted her focus to off-road events, leading her to XTERRA. At XTERRA Greece 2023, her first elite XTERRA race, she placed 3rd with the fastest run split. She then went back to the multi-sport championships and earned the silver medal in the cross duathlon but, in the cross triathlon where she was in 6th position, she fell and broke her ankle. 

“The ankle thing was really tough. In the first moment, it hurt more not to finish the race than the actual fracture.”

Her medical background quickly kicked in, assessing the damage and recovery time, fearing she might miss the inaugural XTERRA World Cup races.

“But everything went well. Surgery went well and I had a great team around me. And actually, I got some time to focus on stuff that I normally wouldn't have, like core strength, swimming technique, and more hours on the bike when I couldn't run.”

This experience taught her resilience. “It made me realize there's always a solution and there's always a way forward, even when it looks a bit dark and you might be thrown back within seconds. And, I have to say, I have the best support team. I learn that every day, actually.”

“It made me realize there's always a solution and there's always a way forward, even when it looks a bit dark and you might be thrown back within seconds."

Just months later, Zehnder finished 2nd at XTERRA Nouvelle Aquitaine and an impressive 9th at the 2023 XTERRA World Championship.



Embracing the World Cup 

In 2024, Zehnder fully committed to the XTERRA World Cup.

“I was really tempted by the idea of doing the World Cup series because it looked cool and you always get to compete against the best."

Despite initial apprehensions about the tough course in Taiwan, she embraced the challenge head-on and loved every moment, eventually claiming 5th on the notoriously tough course. “I was a bit scared of going to Taiwan because it was so far and I was also intimidated because everybody said it's the toughest bike course, it's so tough and it's so technical. But I was so happy that I went. I loved it. I loved the place. I loved the food. The course was fun and I was really happy to start off with a good result.”

With a 5th place finish to open her 2024 campaign, Zehnder then added a 7th place in Greece and an 8th and 5th at Oak Mountain in the Full Distance and Short Track races, respectively.  

“I'm happy with how it went so far and I'm happy I took the leap and went for XTERRA World Cup this year.”



Momentum Building

Looking forward to stop #4 of the World Cup in Belgium, Zehnder feels a sense of momentum building behind her.

“I'm excited for Belgium. I hear it's one of the funnest races in terms of organization and how the crowds are. I’ve heard a bit about the course. It sounds exciting and challenging so I think it could be a good one for me, especially the bike course because it's a lot of climbing and not too technical.”

Not only does she think the bike course suits her ability to push pure power on the climbs, but she also thinks she has an advantage for the swim.  

"The one loop will probably help me because maybe some people will get tired and don't like the long stretches or don't sight so well—and I feel like that's something I can do really well.”

Inspired and motivated by her competitors, Zehnder is hungry to improve.

“I think the top three at the moment is a bit out of reach but last weekend in the Short Track I beat Marta Menditto. She's faster than me at the moment so she's also an inspiration and a challenge. I really want to move up to her level…and maybe beat her.”

"I'm still a danger in the shadows and, at some point, I will jump out."

“At the moment I have the benefit of the unknown because I'm fairly new so people probably wouldn't expect me or fear me at the moment—but they should. I'm still a danger in the shadows and, at some point, I will jump out."

From Belgium, the World Cup travels to Quebec and the Czech Republic, culminating beneath the breathtaking Brenta Dolomites at the XTERRA World Championship. You can follow Anna Zehnder’s progress through the World Cup series page, select livestream races, and race previews and recaps on the XTERRA YouTube Channel. Much like Aneta Grabmüller, Zehnder is having a breakout year, with her time in the shadows quickly being replaced by time in the spotlight.












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Author Bio

Sarah Bonner

Sarah Kim Bonner (MA, PGDip, BA Hons) is a Canadian freelance writer, graphic designer, and professional triathlete. She has worked as a creative for over 10 years, specializing in written storytelling within endurance sports. Emotionally allergic to an office 9-5, she has lived and raced all over the world from the Arctic to Africa and now calls the Canary Islands home. Find her at or @sarahkimbonner.

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