Former collegiate athlete takes on elite triathlon scene by storm
Standing out there on a long dock floating in the middle of a lake in London's Hyde Park last August, Gwen Jorgensen readied herself for her biggest race to date. Surrounded by some of the most notable triathletes in the world -- women like 2008 gold medalist Emma Snowsill of Australia and fellow American Laura Bennett, a 10-year veteran in the sport -- Jorgensen was a relative unknown. Having raced her first competitive triathlon in March 2010, she might have been seen as an up-and-comer, perhaps, but certainly she was too new to the sport to be considered a legitimate threat.
"I was very lucky in that race," she says. "No one knew who I was, so that played to my advantage a lot."
When she dove into the open water of the Serpentine, she wasn't unduly jostled about or pushed around too much; on the bike path, she found the other cyclists let her draft, not feeling the need to drop her during the picturesque 40-kilometer ride through Knightsbridge and passes Wellington Arch and Buckingham Palace. (The course, which Jorgensen says is rather flat and not particularly technical, will be the same at the 2012 Games.) At the second transition, going into the run, Jorgensen was part of the lead pack, in a perfect position to let her God-given talent take over.
A top-10 finish would automatically secure her a spot on the U.S. Olympic Triathlon team. It might have seemed like a long shot when she stood on that dock hours before, but her legs were strong and carried her to the finish line in just 2:00:41, seven seconds behind winner, Helen Jenkins of Great Britain. With that second-place finish, there would be nothing else standing between the 25-year-old native of Waukesha, Wisc., and her Olympic dream -- albeit one she didn't know she had just two years ago.
There is a photograph of Jorgensen in the midst of her very first triathlon -- not the one from 2010, but a local super sprint she had done six years earlier. It wasn't her idea to do that race, but it was something her friend Maggie Lach, had always wanted to do. "I swam and ran with her in high school," she says. "So, I was like, Sure, why not?" And so, the summer after they graduated, they signed up and did a triathlon together, a sort of adolescent-bucket-list endeavor before heading off to college. They didn't train, per se, and at the end of each leg, they would wait in the transition zone for the other to catch up. Maggie has scoured the Internet, looking for the results of that race, but the only evidence they have is this photograph.
In it, Jorgensen is hunched over the handlebars of her mountain bike, clearly laboring through the most unpleasant leg of the race. Looking back, she laughs as she remarks, "I look ridiculous. The seat is way, way too low, and I'm pedaling with regular shoes, and I ... I just look ridiculous."
She clearly knows better now, but it has taken some time for her to feel comfortable on her seat. A trained swimmer and natural runner, Jorgensen climbed aboard a road bike for the first time two years ago, when she began training to become a competitive triathlete. At the University of Wisconsin, where she graduated in 2009, she had been a member of the cross-country, track and swim teams. The 2009 Big Ten champion in the 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter races, she earned All-America honors as a runner.
"I have a huge, God-given talent in running," she says, somehow without the slightest air of immodesty. "It's weird because growing up, I really loved swimming, but I didn't really have that talent in swimming. I put in all these hours and I felt like I never really saw the results of all the time I put in. Then when I started running, I almost felt like I didn't deserve to run as fast as I did.... It just feels natural [to run]."
As her decorated college athletic career neared its end, Jorgensen, an accounting major, was prepared to enter the real world with a job at Ernst & Young. Not once did she ever give the Olympics a thought. Her swimming times were strong, but not world-class caliber, and running for gold seemed a lofty goal for someone who ran track for only three years. "I didn't really have [Olympic] aspirations at that time," she says. "It just never crossed my mind."
Meanwhile, USA Triathlon was canvassing college campuses, looking for potential athletes to recruit. The Olympic triathlon is comprised of a 1,500-meter swim, followed by a 40-kilometer bike and a 10-kilometer run, and since its debut at the Sydney Games in 2000, the U.S. has captured just one medal -- a bronze in Athens -- in the event. When they approached Wisconsin's track and swimming coaches, they each offered one name: Gwen Jorgensen.
She seemed like a natural, and so they made their pitch. For the second time in her life, Jorgensen got a call from someone, asking her to do a triathlon.
"When I thought of triathlon [as an Olympic sport], I thought of Ironman," say Jorgensen, referring to the ultimate endurance race, which combines a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a marathon run. "I was like, 'Goodness, I don't know if I want to do that.' So then they had to explain to me that it's a whole different type [of race], that it's shorter and you can draft on the bike.... All these sorts of things, they had to teach me about right at the beginning."
And just as she had in 2004, when Maggie made her pitch, Jorgensen shrugged and said, "Sure. Why not?"
With the London Games some 32 months away, she began training that winter as an amateur. Her first true triathlon, USA Triathlon's Elite Development Race in March 2010 in Clermont, Fla., quickly revealed just how much work she had ahead of her.
"I hardly had any skills on the bike, and the swim is way different in open water, where you're getting hit and pushed under water," she says. "I wasn't expecting that at all, and I definitely wasted a lot of energy worrying about that.... When I got on the bike, I just remember thinking, 'Please don't get lapped out. Please don't get lapped out.' I felt like everyone had biked passed me, and I felt like the slowest person ever."
And yet, she still managed to finish eighth (second among amateurs) and earned her pro card at the event, on her first try. Since, it has been a steady, if meteoric, rise to the highest ranks of the sport. "It's ridiculous how much I've improved, and that's only because of my coaches and USA Triathlon," she says. "They've put on camps where they brought in USA Cycling coaches, set me up with Tom Schuler, an ex-pro cyclist who lives in my area.... I feel so much more comfortable on the bike and so much more confident."
The community that came with Triathlon, too, has further helped her fall in love with the sport she knew almost nothing about not long ago. "I have a huge passion for this now," she says. "I've really grown to love it and the people around it.... [And] as long as I'm fortunate enough and healthy enough to compete at this level, I want to continue to do it."
With a chance to bring home an Olympic medal next August and a new triathlon family she adores, Jorgensen cannot help but feel blessed to have found triathlon -- even if it was actually triathlon that found her.