Few athletes have seen more podiums than Sandra Mairhofer in the last two seasons as the Italian continues to claim titles in cross-tri, winter-tri, and now XCM. But even more impressive is that she is not a full-time athlete - spending her time off the trails guiding the next generation of Italian athletes.
The XTERRA community knows Sandra Mairhofer as one of the strongest, fastest, and most determined athletes currently competing in the XTERRA World Cup and on the World Tour. There is a wave of talent washing through the women’s division right now and Mairhofer is right up front. The 2x European Champion may have just missed the podium in her opening race of the World Cup, but she immediately bounced back with a win in the Belgium Short Track race and a 2nd place finish in the European Championship. She then backed that up with another win at XTERRA France. Even at 5th place on the World Cup leaderboard, she is still one of the biggest threats to take the series once all 7 stops are said and done.
But to the rest of the world, especially to a lot of 15-18 year-olds in South Tyrol, Italy, she is Miss Mairhofer the physical education teacher, and her impact in this world is just as powerful.
One look at where Mairhofer grew up in Northeast Italy and it would be impossible to imagine her doing anything else. In the beautiful mountain landscape, her backyard was a daily invitation to go outside and play. “Growing up, I did a lot of sports—all different kinds of sports,” she says, listing skiing, cycling, and football on the long list. “I was not into one sport specifically. I learned all the sports quite quickly and I really loved to be outside.” Mairhofer adds that she never wanted to do competitions, it was more just to play and be with friends.
It was only later, after she had finished her tertiary studies in Austria, that a friend persuaded her to do a road triathlon. After a few events, her friend saw she had a talent on the bike and pushed her to focus just on cycling. “But I didn’t want that,” Mairhofer says simply. “Especially living here in the mountains, it’s really beautiful that you can do different sports. That is what I still love most about triathlon—you can really do a lot of alternative training, different styles of training.”
Her friend eventually let her keep the bike but the first time Mairhofer went outside to ride she was hit by a car. The bike was broken, Mairhofer suffered minor injuries, and then she decided mountain biking was a safer option. It wasn’t long after that Mairhofer got herself to the start line of an XTERRA.
“From there on, I really loved the atmosphere. I really loved the organization. It was really my world.”
Mairhofer had always avoided competition growing up but seeing the elite men and women at XTERRA races intrigued her. “They were all really impressive. I really was impressed by them and really wanted to try to give it a try myself.”
From her rookie season in 2018 to the pandemic, Mairhofer improved and found herself on the podium three times. Then, in 2021, Mairhofer opened her season on the podium and won three out of her four starts, including winning the European Championship for the first time.
“In 2021, I got a coach. He really explained and helped me to learn what works best for me and from there I took it more seriously. Before I was just doing some running, some swimming sometimes and some biking,” she explains.
"That is what I still love most about triathlon—you can really do a lot of alternative training, different styles of training.”
Her success continued the following season when she won XTERRA Germany, took 2nd place at the 2022 XTERRA World Championship despite being ill, and successfully defended her European title. Now, for the 2023 season, she is competing with the best as one of the best, seemingly hitting her stride at just the right time.
Despite being one of XTERRA’s top competitors, Mairhofer has always worked outside of her sport full-time. Currently, she is a physical education teacher for high school students. Even if she could be a full-time athlete, she says that’s not how she wants to live her life. “I really love being a teacher. I'm really happy to teach others and to get them outside, to love nature, do sports, and just to move.”
Mairhofer does admit it can be hard to fit in enough training and get time off for racing during the school year but she doesn’t focus on those complications. Instead, she makes the most of the summer months, especially school holidays, to focus on training. “With the school, it's not easy to train really well so my time is always when it's getting warmer, when the days are longer, and I really can train myself more, be outside more.”
“I really love being a teacher. I'm really happy to teach others and to get them outside, to love nature, do sports, and just to move.”
During the winter, instead of traveling to warm weather for training camps like many athletes, she straps on skis and races winter triathlon. She also leaves room in her calendar to compete in more regional mountain biking events, recently having claimed a 1st place finish at the Italian National Championships for XCM to set herself up to represent her country at the UCI Cycling World Championships in Glasgow.
Trying to balance her work as a teacher and an athlete might seem impossible to most but it gives Mairhofer balance. Taking the pressure off racing and avoiding the difficulties of making a living as an athlete gives her the freedom to train and race as she wants. “I don't have to race and I don't have to earn my living from that. Having other work, being a teacher, earning money from the sport is not the main goal of mine so I can take a lot of pressure off myself.”
Structuring her life around teaching might be, in one part, practical, but what underpins that decision and her approach to sport is her true love of teaching. While she might be one of the biggest names in XTERRA right now, it’s the influence on her students that fuels her passion and gives her a grounded sense of purpose.
Teaching sport to teenagers as a world-class athlete herself puts Mairhofer in a unique position to be especially impactful as a role model.
“I really try to get my students into sports and try to build a love, to feed a love for sports and movement,” she says. “I really want to give them the message that, you don’t have to do high performance sport, it’s just about moving, feeling your body and being confident with your body.”
“Sport helps you to be more confident with your body and then you will see that confidence in other parts of your life—it’s not all about the kilos and how you see yourself in the mirror.”
Working with high school students, Mairhofer says the biggest problem is getting them to stay in sport. “Drop out—that’s more the problem because I think teenagers don’t feel so confident anymore while going through puberty. I really feel I can help them.”
Her lessons give students the opportunity to feel confident and because she is also leading by example—truly living and breathing the power of sport—it’s no wonder she feels her role can have such an impactful positive influence.
Mairhofer feels especially passionate about being a good role model to her female students. “I'm working in a school where there are a lot of girls and I hope that I can get them more confident when doing sports,” she says. “Sport helps you to be more confident with your body and then you will see that confidence in other parts of your life—it’s not all about the kilos and how you see yourself in the mirror.”
Her message isn’t just for her students. “I really would love to see more girls coming into XTERRA and more young girls who really want to try.” Mairhofer explains how the women of XTERRA in particular are—yes, fiercely competitive—but ultimately supportive of one another and how that attitude is mirrored throughout the whole community.
“I really would love to see more girls coming into XTERRA and more young girls who really want to try."
The opportunities that sport can afford women, and everyone, are there for the taking so, Mairhofer encourages, “Just try it, you can’t fail.”
Mairhofer currently sits at 5th position but has raced fewer races than any of the others in the top 5. She now heads into back-to-back races in Czech and Germany. Both races are double-feature weekends, meaning 4 races in 8 days but also an opportunity to claim up to 240 points across both stops.
The Italian multi-sport queen seems to be growing in strength with every race she starts this season and could easily see herself climbing the World Cup ranks. But Mairhofer will no doubt be sure that the wave of talent and competition that is washing through the female division right now will make her earn it the hard way.
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