How Olympic Gold-Medalist Gwen Jorgensen Went from Accountant to World Champion
Meet the first American to win a gold in the Olympic triathlon...ever
Becoming the first American-man or woman-to win an Olympic triathlon since the sport joined the Summer Games 16 years ago was no fluke for Gwen Jorgensen. After having an unprecedented 12-race winning streak that spanned from 2014 to this April and earning two world championship titles along the way, the 30-year-old Wisconsin-bred brunette seemed poised to wear the Olympic crown.
Her husband Patrick Lemieux summed up Jorgensen's race-day odds best: "I'm biased, but I don't think I'm alone in saying Gwen wasn't the favorite. She was the clear favorite. If anybody else said differently, I think they were naïve and probably a little mislead."
Don't read this as cockiness. It's good old fashioned confidence in his wife, who he witnessed firsthand become an Olympic champion over five years since meeting on a fateful group training ride in 2011. Back then, Jorgensen was still new to biking-a sport she picked up in 2009 at the behest of USA Triathlon's Barb Lindquist who had recruited the 23-year-old Ernst and Young accountant after discovering that she was an elite swimmer (her first Olympic dream since age 8) and All-American collegiate track star.
Lindquist's hunch was right: Three years after getting into triathlon, Jorgensen made her Olympic debut in London. Unfortunately, a flat tire forced her to place 38th (out of 55). The devastating loss made her face the facts: She had to shift gears if she didn't want to see another Olympic dream slip away.
That fall, she signed on a new coach, Jamie Turner, who insisted that she train in a daily performance environment with other highly competitive world-class athletes. This meant uprooting her Minnesotan life along with Lemieux, who gradually quit his pro cycling career three years ago to become her full-time caretaker, cooking meals, doing laundry, packing her custom Specialized S-Works Amira for trips. They began splitting their time between Australia and Spain to train. The mental and physical shift in strategy (and geography) prepared her to become the biggest threat on the Olympic-distance course, which consists of ~1-mile swim, ~25-mile bike, and 6.2-mile run.
We sat down with Jorgensen and her husband at the Oakley Safe House in Rio to chat about what it takes to win and why it brought her to tears-a rare sight for the otherwise unemotional athlete.
SHAPE: When you first got into triathlons did you ever imagine this would be the outcome?
Jorgensen: Barb Lindquist of the USA Triathlon College Recruitment program came to me and said, "I think you should do triathlon." I kinda laughed. I had a huge passion for swimming growing up and I wanted to go to the Olympics. But I didn't think I had what it took. So I responded to her, "I'm not good enough." She said, "Well, on paper you can be an Olympian." I just didn't believe it. When I qualified for my first Olympics in 2012, it was a complete shock to me. I'm just really thankful that I've had those people to believe in me throughout the way and encourage me because without them I wouldn't be doing triathlon.
SHAPE: What did you and Nicola Spirig, who ultimately won the silver, say to each other during the last leg of the race in Rio?
Jorgensen: After arguing who was going to lead next, she said, "I already have a medal." And I said, "That's fair enough. But you still have two, and I only have one!"
SHAPE: Did that piss you off?
Jorgensen: Nicola did everything she could on race day to win, and I loved it. There's no textbook way to compete in triathlon because something different happens every time. It was a new situation to play mind games. You have to be prepared for anything.
Lemieux: That kind of stuff doesn't fuel Gwen like it does other athletes. I think she just had an internal drive to win that race no matter what. She was going to do it under any circumstances. There could have been sideways wind, rain, and cold temperatures. She showed up and she was ready for anything. And the mind games, it turned out, she was ready for that too.
SHAPE: It was an emotional finish, which is rare for you. Can you tell us about it?
Jorgensen: I've said for four years that on August 20th I want a gold medal. It's incredible that I was actually able to do it. Four years comes down to one day. To be able to perform on that one day is amazing. To have Patrick and Jamie there meant so much. I wish they could have stood on the podium with me. (For more awesome moments from Rio, check out The Most Inspiring Moments from the 2016 Olympics.)
SHAPE: Considering what happened in London, how many times did you check your bike tires that morning?
Jorgensen: I completely trust my equipment-it's the best in the world. I only partner with sponsors that I truly believe in. I've been with Team Oakley since 2011 and Specialized since 2012. To have that kind of support is really incredible. Also seeing other Oakley athletes from different sports wearing the Green Fade collection at the Olympics made me feel like I was part of a family. It gave me extra motivation to cheer that much harder.
SHAPE: Any plans to continue to 2020 Tokyo to pick up your second Olympic gold?
Jorgensen: I'm definitely a planner, but I have zero plans right now. We'll have to wait and see.
Lemieux: There's still the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final left. It's September 17th in Cozumel, Mexico. Afterward, we'll take some time to reflect. I'm not sure that Gwen or myself would be ready to hop back on a plane to Australia and go, "Alright, let's fire it up again. Let's do four more years." That's something that I can't envision happening right now. It just takes a lot. It takes uncompromised work.
SHAPE: Do you want to start a family soon?
Lemieux: Yeah, I would love to. We've been talking about it a lot, a lot, a lot. Now the time's come and you have to make the big decision. So we'll start figuring it out when we get home. I've seen only one mosquito in Rio, but we still have to do the whole Zika test. We definitely want a family.