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Coach Cindi Bannink shares some of the training tactics she’s using to guide Gwen Jorgensen to a podium finish at the 2012 London Olympics.
Soon-to-be-Olympian Gwen Jorgensen met coach Cindi Bannink through USAT’s Collegiate Recruitment Program in 2009, right after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. The Madison-based coach, who just earned the honor of USAT Coach of the Year last week, knew Jorgensen had just come out of a good running program and that she’d done a lot of swimming—but she was just getting on a bike.
“Just because someone can run doesn’t mean they have what it takes to be a good triathlete,” Bannink says. “She didn’t have the advantage of someone who’s been riding a bike for 10 years. She’s really had a steep learning curve in that department.” Getting Jorgensen comfortable on the bike was top priority, and it paid off: at her first race in March of 2010, she earned her pro card. Flash forward a year and a half later and Jorgensen’s runner-up finish at the 2011 London ITU World Championship Series event qualified her for the Olympics. She’s one of two Americans with a secured spot on the team.
What will it take to win gold in London? “Without getting technical, at that level of racing there’s any number of about 10 girls that could win—maybe more than that,” Bannink says. “At the top level, everyone is there to win and I think it comes down to how the race plays out and who’s going to be the most mentally tough that day. Whoever is willing to push their body beyond the level where anyone else is willing to go.”
Here are some strategies that Bannink has used with her gold-medal hopeful that you can apply to your own training.
>>Prioritize key workouts
When the pair started working together, Jorgensen was working crazy hours as an accountant, not leaving much time for training. “We were limited in the beginning to how much volume she could really handle. A lot of pro triathletes are training in the 20–25-hour zone and there’s no way she would have the time and energy to be able to do that,” Bannink says. But as she progressed, Jorgensen slowly moved away from the accounting world and committed herself full-time to triathlon. “The progression she made—she had to make it at her own rate. For her, it worked out perfect, now she’s committed to having triathlon be her job. Now she can invest in her training and what goes into it.”
Bannink says in order to keep Jorgensen training at a high level, they had to focus on key sessions where she would improve the most, which meant working on bike skills and power and getting back in the pool. “Be smart about how you’re structuring your training and that you’re not just throwing in stuff in there for the sake of adding volume,” Bannink says. “Have a purpose for every workout. Have a clear assessment of your skills and focus on the areas where you can make the most improvement. For my athletes, that’s having a tempo or threshold day. If you’re unsure of your true limiters, that’s where a coach can come in and help.”
>>Swim with fast swimmers
Getting and staying in the lead pack on the swim will be key in London, making swimming a priority for Jorgensen, who’s currently living in Clermont, Fla. She’s been swimming six days a week and doing race simulation-type workouts (get out hard, maintain at a threshold level of effort). She’s also been training with other athletes, such as speedy swimmer Sara McLarty, to “help her push to that next level that she wouldn’t be able to do on her own in the pool,” Bennink says. “She’s been taking opportunities to swim in open water events to learn an awareness of what’s going on around her, whose feet she’s on and being able to see what’s happening.”
>>Have fun out there
“Part of why Gwen and I work well together is because I understand her,” Bannink says. “Gwen is doing triathlon because this is fun for her. I don’t think she’ll do the sport if at some point she’s not having fun. My biggest concern going into London, and this will sound really silly, is that I want her to have fun with the experience. I want to keep her from being overwhelmed by everything else that’s involved in being a member of the Olympic team. Athletes race better if they’re having fun—my average age-grouper isn’t going to be making millions of dollars, they’re in this because they love the experience. Obviously I have other concerns about keeping her healthy and staying injury-free, but I’m giving her the best tools possible to be successful on that day. I want to make sure she’s enjoying the process.”
>>Weak on the bike? Do some cycling events
For true beginners, Bannink recommends finding a beginner clinic or group in your area with a passion for introducing people into cycling. If you’re at a decent skill level, consider cycling-friendly events. “One of the ways that Gwen has improved is through bike racing, and it’s really catapulted her cycling and helped her get really comfortable riding in a pack,” Bannink says. “Mountain biking and cyclocross racing are awesome for bike skills and fitness, and they’re less intimidating than crit racing. I think it’s great to participate in single-sport activities as a way to prepare for multisport racing.”
In addition to advising Jorgensen, Bannink coaches age-group athletes through Multisport Madison, which she started in 2007.