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The Prodigy: U.S. Olympian Gwen Jorgensen
On the surface, Gwen Jorgensen’s journey to the Olympics seems like triathlon’s greatest fairytale. She hadn’t considered racing professionally in triathlon — or in any sport, for that matter — when 2004 Olympian Barb Lindquist called, urging Jorgensen to give triathlon a shot. With some prodding, Jorgensen signed up for her first competitive triathlon in 2010. Just 17 months later, she qualified for the Olympics with a second-place finish at the 2011 ITU World Championship in London.
That’s the fairytale part: going from newbie to Olympian in less than two years. But behind her enchanted rise to the top are years of intense training that prepared her to become an Olympic contender. She just didn’t know that’s what she was training to do.
Born and raised just outside of Milwaukee, Wis., Jorgensen enjoyed math and played the violin in her high school orchestra. But her greatest passion was swimming.
“I was obsessed with swimming in high school,” Jorgensen, 26, recalls. “Almost everything I did revolved around swimming. In fact, if I was ever grounded, my parents would take away swim practice.”
She also ran track at Waukesha South High School, where she proved to be a naturally gifted runner. But what she’s referred to as her “God-given talent” for running couldn’t compete with her love of the water, so Jorgensen swam during her first three years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
After the swim season ended in 2007, Jorgensen spent her short offseason running. That’s when her high school track coach talked to her about trying out for the Badgers track team.“I loved swimming, but I wouldn’t say that it was my best sport,” Jorgensen says. She impressed the Wisconsin track coach with a time trial, earning a spot on the team and discovering that her talent for running was truly extraordinary.
In only two years on the cross country team and three years on the track team, Jorgensen became one of the Badgers’ most decorated runners, capping her senior season in 2009 as the Big Ten indoor champ in the 3,000 and 5,000m events. Her winning time in the 5,000? 15:55:63. It’s no wonder Lindquist, USA Triathlon’s collegiate recruitment coordinator, took notice of her. But while Lindquist thought she’d found a future Olympian, Jorgensen had other post-collegiate plans.
She graduated with a master’s degree in accounting and took a job as a certified public accountant with Ernst and Young in Milwaukee.
“I had actually never dreamed of going to the Olympics,” Jorgensen says.
But a stress fracture suffered during her final track season made cross training look a lot more attractive. So Jorgensen gave in to Lindquist’s urging to compete as a triathlete.
With help from coach Cindi Bannink and Jorgensen’s boyfriend, pro cyclist Patrick Lemieux, Jorgensen got a handle on the cycling skills she needed to survive the draft-legal style of racing contested at the Olympics, and the rest, as they say, is history.
At the London ITU race, Jorgensen posted the fastest run split of the day in 33:43 to finish second to Great Britain’s Helen Jenkins by seven seconds.
Fellow American Sarah Groff, came in 17 seconds behind Jorgensen to secure a spot with her on the U.S. Olympic triathlon team. Jorgensen is currently on a leave of absence from her job to prepare for London.
Jorgensen credits her parents for giving her the drive to become an Olympian — even if she had no idea that all of her efforts in college would lead her to an Olympic berth.
“They’re hard working and dedicated,” Jorgensen says. “From a young age I learned from them that it is important to give everything you have in whatever you’re doing.”