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Two-time ITU world champion Gwen Jorgensen chats with Forbes.com’s Tony Nitti about her transition from a tax accountant to a world-class athlete, and what she thinks she’ll do after her sporting career is complete.
If you’re not familiar with Gwen Jorgensen, you will be soon. The two-time reigning ITU World Triathlon Champion, Jorgensen promises to become a household name during this summer’s Olympics, where she will be the heavy favorite to bring home the gold in Rio. Over the past two years, Jorgensen has arguably been the most dominant athlete in the world; at one point, she won a record 13 consecutive World Cup races, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that ITU races—which are comprised of a 1.5 kilometer swim, 40 kilometer draft-legal bike, and 10 kilometer run—are often decided by a sprint finish.
Throughout the course of the Summer Games, the world will learn how Jorgensen—a college swimmer and runner at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—was identified by USA Triathlon as a prospective star without ever having participated in the sport. And how after only one year of competing, she earned a spot on the U.S. team for the 2012 Games in London. And how an untimely flat tire during those Games robbed Jorgensen of an opportunity to medal, but fueled her ascendancy to the top of her sport.
What the world probably won’t learn, however, is that before Jorgensen was the top female triathlete on the planet, she was a tax geek, just like you and me. That’s right; at the time she was identified by USA Triathlon as having the necessary swim-run background to excel at the sport, Jorgensen occupied a cubicle in the corporate tax group of Ernst & Young in Milwaukee, doing the things young tax geeks do: formatting spreadsheets, loathing busy-season dinner choices, and using the Internal Revenue Code to prop up a second monitor.
Jorgensen’s story is a fascinating one, and I was eager to learn how she went from a newly-branded CPA to a gold medal-favorite. Fortunately, Jorgensen was kind enough to take some time out of her Olympic preparation to engage in a little Q&A so that we could all understand her journey a bit better. What follows is my (TN) exchange with Jorgensen (GJ); I hope you enjoy it.
Tony Nitti: You are the 2014 and 2015 ITU World Triathlon Series Champion, the top-ranked female triathlete on the planet, and the heavy favorite to bring home the gold medal in this summer’s Olympic Games in Brazil. But before you took over the triathlon world, you were a tax accountant for Ernst & Young in Milwaukee. You’ve said that you grew up dreaming of becoming a professional swimmer, but at what age did you decide that you also wouldn’t mind being a professional number cruncher? And what was it about yourself that made tax accounting feel like a good fit?
Gwen Jorgensen: I dreamed of being an Olympic swimmer, but those dreams quickly diminished when I was in high school and didn’t make the National Team. I continued to swim because I had a passion for it, but I knew if I wanted to have enough money to buy food, I needed to find another job. I have always enjoyed numbers and learning about business, so in college, I took business courses. Something about the order of debits and credits really intrigued me. I love trying to figure out the tax puzzle. I find it challenging and satisfying.
Nitti: When you joined E&Y, what was it that attracted you to tax in general, and corporate taxation in specific? Other than, of course, the obvious fact that auditing is the worst.
Jorgensen: To be brutally honest, I didn’t want to travel and heard that auditors travel a lot. It’s kind of funny because for my current job as a triathlete, I live abroad for nine months of the year and I am rarely home. I also was attracted to corporate taxation because I enjoyed searching for answers in the tax Code. Researching and finding solutions for clients is fun. And tax people are just awesome. Go tax!
Read more: Forbes.com