RIO DE JANEIRO – After a 1,500-meter swim, a 24.9-mile bike and six-kilometers into a scenic 10K run along Copacabana Beach, it was an unfamiliar time for U.S. triathlete Gwen Jorgensen to have company.
With a few smiles and laughs, Jorgensen did not seem to mind being joined by reigning Olympic champion Nicola Spirig of Switzerland—as they ran side-by-side heading into the last lap of the run. Jorgensen’s prowess on the run prevailed before breaking down in tears at the finish line as she became the first American to win gold in the triathlon.
It was Jorgensen’s crowning moment as she has cemented herself as one of the most dominant athletes in sports having won the last two World Triathlon Series titles and went undefeated from May 2014 to April 2016, which includes a 12–0 record.
Jorgensen’s reign started with a call from USA Triathlon’s Barbara Lindquist in 2010 when she was told that her Olympic hopes may still be alive despite taking time after college to work as an accountant for Ernst and Young. She left her desk job to train and qualified for the 2012 Olympics in London. A flat tire resulted in a 38th place finish, and disappointment fueled her a comeback for gold.
“I’ve said for four years that this was my goal. I wanted to cross that line and get the gold medal,” Jorgensen “It’s pretty incredible that I was able to do it. Four years comes down to one day and to be able to perform on that day is something pretty amazing.”
For years there has been chatter among triathletes to try and expose Jorgensen’s weakness on the bike, and their conversations changed the approach to racing.
“It’s just less predictable,” Sarah True, the 4th place finisher at the London Olympics, who was forced to drop out with a knee injury on the bike, told SI last month. “You have to be really responsive to the field dynamics. Race dynamics and the strengths of other people who are key people in the field.”
The theory was put to the test earlier in the year as Jorgensen was defeated at the Gold Coast and Hamburg stops on the World Triathlon Series. Spirig, who had not faced Jorgensen since the 2012 Olympics, took it upon herself to lead the bike ride and surge from the front on several occasions to try and wear down Jorgensen’s legs.
“I tried to tire her out on the bike and stick with her on the run and I think I did everything right and she still won so I definitely think she deserves the gold,” Spirig said.
In the past quadrennium, Jorgensen has also displayed that if a race was left to the run, she would be favored having been a two-time All-American distance runner at Wisconsin and boasting personal bests on the road that would contend with professional distance runners. A lead of no particular size was ever safe as Jorgensen erased a 94-second deficit with her running ability to win the Leeds WTS stop in June.
Jorgensen came off the bike without disaster and Spirig remained in contention for gold.
Since London, the Swiss champion has only raced three World Triathlon Series races and took time off to give birth to a son in 2013. While she may not have been racing on the ITU circuit, she maintained fitness by racing longer races including the marathon, where she took 24th place at the 2014 European Athletics Championships in Zurich in two hours, 37 minutes and 12 seconds.
Her hopes of defending her Olympic title nearly came to an end in March, when she crashed her bike at the World Triathlon Series Abu Dhabi race which required her to get surgery to put three plates and 23 screws in her left hand. Spirig’s level of fitness was relatively unknown to her competitors and even the media—as SI didn’t pick Spirig to finish on the podium in Brian Cazeneuve’s medal projections. “She made that back part tough” Great Britain’s Non Stanford, who finished fourth behind compatriot and bronze medalist Vicky Holland says. “She was incredible today and I’m really impressed. She made that back part tough. It was different from what we expected. We were expecting it to be a really hard, maintained effort for the first few laps but Nicola kept putting in these surges. That was really hurting everyone’s legs. She played a very clever and tactical game and it payed off.”
In Jorgensen’s Gold Coast loss, she trailed the leaders off the bike by two minutes but was able to catch everyone but Great Britain’s Helen Jenkins. That was not the case on Saturday, as Jorgensen and Spirig were quickly in the lead of the run. Jorgensen took the first lap while Spirig drafted, with both trading places in the second and third lap. As they approached the bell for the final lap of the run, Spirig asked Jorgensen to take the lead. The American refused. Sirig argued that she had been leading into a headwind before and it was Jorgensen’s turn to do so. Jorgensen did not budge as Spirig tried her last remaining advantage over Jorgensen.
“Well, I already have a medal so it’s you who has to work,” Spirig said to Jorgensen.
Jorgensen waited and then took off with less than two-kilometers left in the race. As she approached the finish line, she started sobbing and hunched over to break the tape in one hour, 56 minutes and 16 seconds.
“It was fair enough, she now has two and I have one,” Jorgensen says.