Gwen Jorgensen’s Big Gold Dream

Photo Credit: Talbot Cox

It was a modern-day Cinderella story: a tax accountant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, turned Olympic gold medalist. Gwen Jorgensen was made for prime time, and Olympic commentators at the 2016 Rio Games breathlessly recounted how a random phone call changed the course of her life.

“Have you ever considered triathlon?” asked the voice on the other end. Barb Lindquist’s job was to identify single-sport athletes who showed Olympic potential in triathlon. Jorgensen, a former collegiate swimmer and runner at the University of Wisconsin, was at the top of her list.

At first, Jorgensen laughed. She firmly believed her athletic days were behind her after graduation. Though she won a handful of 3,000 and 5,000 meter races in her collegiate career, her times were hardly competitive in an Olympic context. Also, she didn’t know how to ride a bike—and wasn’t that a prerequisite for a sport that combined swim, bike and run?

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Lindquist acknowledged that the odds were stacked against Jorgensen, but there was something there. “We think you’d be quite good at it,” said Lindquist. “Just give it a try.”

In Jorgensen’s first triathlon in 2010, she came in second place. By 2012, she had earned a spot at the London Olympics, where she placed 38th after a flat tire on the bike. She spent the next four years declaring her intent to win at the 2016 Games, no matter what. In a stark contrast to the London Games, she had a near-perfect race in Rio, outrunning defending champion Nicola Spirig of Switzerland.

In the span of only six years, Jorgensen rocketed to the top of the sport, with an unparalleled 17 World Triathlon Series victories, two world championship titles and the first U.S. athlete to win Olympic gold in triathlon. She was all but a lock for a medal in the 2020 Tokyo Games.

And then she shifted gears.

“My 10K times were improving with triathlon training, and I wondered what my limits were,” said Jorgensen. “I wanted to reach my potential in running, and was intrigued by the thought of Olympic running. The marathon is an iconic Olympic event, so I was drawn to that distance.“

First, she consulted with her husband, Patrick Lemieux. The two operate as a team, with Lemieux managing logistics like travel and nutrition so Jorgensen can focus on training. They discussed the pros and cons of the decisions, including how the decision would impact their young son Stanley.

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“After Patrick was on board, I asked advice of top-level running coaches and my triathlon coach, Jamie Turner,” said Jorgensen. The turning point, she said, was the realization that triathlon didn’t bring her the same joy it once did. She needed something that would light a fire in her belly every day, “Training for the marathon excited me. I knew if I didn’t try, I would always wonder, ‘what if?’”

The endurance community was rocked when Jorgensen announced she was hanging up her swim goggles and bike helmet to pursue a different Olympic gold medal: this time, in the marathon.

Running pundits scoffed at the announcement. She had only run one marathon in her lifetime. Her 2:41:01 finishing time at the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon was almost five minutes off the Olympic Trials qualifying standard and almost 20 minutes slower than the top three finishers in the 2016 Olympic marathon. Did Jorgensen really think she could hold her own against the likes of U.S. Olympians Shalane Flanagan and Desiree Linden? What’s more, did she actually think she could beat them to win Olympic gold?

Jorgensen understands the line of questioning. “It’s kind of a crazy situation if you don’t know my whole story,” she said. “And even if you do, I’m taking a big risk. I know that on paper I have very little evidence to show that I will be a world-class runner. But this risk is also a calculated risk.”

Besides, she knows firsthand that with big risks come big rewards. After all, the last time she took a big risk, she learned how to ride a bike and became an Olympic gold medalist. Back then, most people, including Jorgensen, thought it was pretty crazy, too.

“My goal is just that, mine. It’s not anyone else’s. The only opinions that matter are those from people supporting my journey—my husband, family, coaches, training partners, physios and sponsors,” said Jorgensen. “Sport has given me confidence, which allows me to put my head down and get the work done without worrying about what others think.”

That work is paying off. In the past year, Jorgensen moved to Portland, joined the powerhouse Bowerman Track Club and signed a sponsorship contract with Nike. She won the 2018 Stanford Invitational 10K race in March, and followed it up with several solid performances, including fourth place at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships and a fifth-place finish in the stacked field of Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race.

Though both lifestyles have their similarities, Jorgensen says training as a runner is much different from her past routine as a triathlete, “I spend a lot more time getting ready to train than I did with triathlon. Before, I would literally roll out of bed and start a run. Now, I need at least one and a half hours before a run to make sure I am fully activated and warmed up.”

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And though some might assume removing swim and bike training from the agenda would free up hours of time, that hasn’t been the case. “It’s a lot harder to stay injury-free as a single-sport athlete,” said Jorgensen. “Prehab and rehab have replaced the swim and bike for me. Winning in running takes focusing on all the details; instead of worrying about tire pressure or goggles, I have to focus on strength and activation.”

And, of course, she’s running. A lot. Mostly with the Bowerman Track Club, where she trains with some of the best marathoners in the world, including Flanagan and her fellow Olympian Amy Cragg. Being in their company has given Jorgensen insight into what it takes to achieve her goal.

“Just being with them, you see the work that has to be done in order to be competitive on the world level. I learn the most by watching, and there is a lot to take in,” Jorgensen shared.

It’s an experience she doesn’t take for granted. She knows American women are in a golden age of running, and being surrounded by excellence inspires her every day. “I believe when someone excels in sport, it pushes everyone else to raise their level,” said Jorgensen. “I love watching the USA marathon women crushing it. It makes others believe that they, too, can reach the top. A rising tide floats all boats.”

The odds, once again, are stacked against Jorgensen. No woman has ever won Olympic gold in two different summer sports. If Jorgensen achieves her goal of winning gold in the marathon, she’ll make history. Is it too far out to try? Maybe. But Jorgensen knows it and embraces it. “I wake up every day, excited and happy to be training and doing what I do,” shared Jorgensen. “This is confirmation that I made the correct choice. I want to inspire people to find and pursue their passion. I want to inspire others to set audacious goals and work really hard to achieve them.”

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