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If you try to draw correlations among the five U.S. triathletes going to the Olympics this year, good luck. There are some parallels, like their willingness to work hard and make sacrifices, as well as a few stories of overcoming adversity. But their journeys to where they are now are all over the map. Each day this week we’ll introduce you to a different member of the U.S. Olympic triathlon team. Today we’re telling to story of Gwen Jorgensen, a collegiate swimmer and runner who was recruited into the sport of triathlon.
Gwen Jorgensen had all but given up sport at an elite level when, with her master’s degree in hand, she landed a job as an accountant at Ernst & Young. Then triathlon came knocking. Literally. Well, actually, it was Barb Lindquist, USA Triathlon’s recruitment director, calling to pitch the sport to Jorgensen. The former collegiate swimmer and runner figured she had nothing to lose.
Her success is truly a story of being in the right place at the right time—as USAT was making a push with their recruitment program, Jorgensen was the ripe, fresh-out-of-college type of athlete they sought. “I had no aspirations of doing what I’m doing now,” said Jorgensen. “I had in my mind my full-time job. I still wanted to compete, but just little road races to stay in shape. But now that I’m doing this I’m loving it and never want to stop! I feel blessed.”
USAT gambled on the right girl. Her first competitive triathlon was in March of 2010. By the end of that year she was named USAT Rookie of the Year. Successes continued in 2011; she was USAT Elite Race Series Champion and Tiszaujvaros ITU World Cup Champion, and had a second-place finish at WCS London that secured her spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.
While there was little question about her swim and run skills, Jorgensen was a stranger to the bike and admitted she hated cycling growing up, leaving some questions. She even fostered a fear of being lapped in her first competitive triathlon, but USAT gave her the right tools and training, and her fears were short-lived when she finished eighth in that inaugural race and got her pro card.
Her cycling has gotten an even bigger boost in the last year thanks to another act of fate. It was during a group ride she caught the eye of pro cyclist, Patrick Lemieux, who asked her out to dinner for that night. The couple has been together ever since. To say that relationship has helped her bike skills is an understatement. “I’m surrounded by these pro cyclists; just being around him and his teammates is helping me tremendously,” she said. “It’s funny, Pat wants to do all my bike work for me, but I tell him, ‘No, I need to learn to do it myself.’”
Lemieux doesn’t let her off easy in training, though, which sometimes fuels a fiery interaction. “The bike is the one time we get close to fighting. We’ll be on rides, and he’ll be like, ‘Just pedal, just pedal, pedal!’” Perhaps, like USAT did, Lemieux realizes he has a special girl on his hands who’s no stranger to hard work.
Looking at her past, it’s no surprise Jorgensen quickly excelled in triathlon. She learned at an early age that if it comes naturally, capitalize on it. If it doesn’t come naturally, then simply work hard. Her swimming reflected the latter. As a young swimmer, she used to get special leave from school to extend practices. “I didn’t always see the results that I felt I should have though,” she said. “There were people putting in less time than me but having more success—that taught me dedication and discipline, and how to deal with failure.”
On the other hand, there were no such issues with her run. Jorgensen started running in high school and had immediate success. “I had a huge natural talent,” she said. “I didn’t go to practices, only to meets, and I was getting top three at state. I knew I had the ability. But I still chose swimming in college at first.”
Like many great triathletes, Jorgensen’s swim career was full of hard work without the earth-shattering results—foreshadowing of things to come, perhaps. In her junior year she gave running a shot and made NCAAs and was an All-American.
While she excelled at running more so than swimming, upon graduation the brainy Jorgensen was ready to hang up competitive sport for a “real” job—it’s a good thing Lindquist got in touch or perhaps we would have never seen this Olympic-caliber athlete reach her potential.