The Total Reinvention of Gwen Jorgensen
She won Olympic gold in a sport that chose her. Can she do the same in the one she truly loves?
Gwen Jorgensen felt calm. Happy, even. It was an odd pre-race emotion for the 30-year-old triathlete, especially considering she was minutes away from starting the most important race of her life, at the Rio Olympics.
Since she raced her first triathlon, just six years earlier, plucked from a tax accounting job at Ernst & Young by USA Triathlon’s nascent Talent ID program, Jorgensen had qualified for two Olympic Games and earned two world champion titles. This was all during a 13-race winning streak from 2014 to 2016—the longest in the history of the sport for a female athlete. She crushed a qualifying event in Rio the year before the games, and now the world expected her to win again, this time to much greater fanfare.
Jorgensen, her lean 5'10″ frame putting her a head above many of her 54 competitors, coolly adjusted her goggles and almost grinned while the other women shook out their legs, arms, and nerves. In the minutes before the athletes all ran down Copacabana Beach into the turquoise saltwater, the TV cameras hung on Jorgensen for a second. Soon they’d turn their focus to the Red Bull–sponsored Wisconsinite and keep it there for most of the run as Jorgensen kicked away from her closest rival with roughly two kilometers to go. She never looked back until she broke the tape. Then, for the first time ever at a finish line, she cried.
“I enjoyed those moments after Rio. I wanted to soak in those four years of hard work,” Jorgensen says. Her immediate post-race goal was to start a family, she said, as her Swiss rival and Rio silver medalist Nicola Spirig had done after the London Olympics in 2012. Jorgensen and her husband, Patrick Lemieux, got tested for Zika and waited the doctor-recommended three months before trying to conceive. Their son, Stanley, made his appearance almost exactly one year to the day after Jorgensen won gold.
But a baby announcement was just the beginning of Jorgensen’s headline news of 2017. She had something else percolating that would shock her fans, sponsors, coaches, and even her family when she finally let it out: Jorgensen didn’t want to be a triathlete. She just wanted to run. And not only did she want to run, she announced on Twitter that fall, but she wanted to win gold in the Olympic marathon.
The triathlon and running worlds immediately began armchair analyzing everything from collegiate stats to her body type to decide which sport was right for her. Jorgensen ignored it all. “I just wasn’t motivated to do the same thing again,” she says. “My heart wasn’t in it.” Lemieux puts it more bluntly: “It’s no secret that triathlon found Gwen. She was never super in love with it.”
Her husband is right. But pursuing triathlon glory transformed Jorgensen from a conservative accountant into a risk-taking, unbreakable champion. It gave her the confidence to risk giving up everything from sponsorships to prize money and follow a different path. And if she could win gold in a sport she merely liked, what could she achieve in one she truly loves?
Gwen Rosemary Jorgensen grew up the younger of two sisters in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a bucolic working-class Milwaukee suburb where high school life is defined by the typical Midwest football games and homecoming parades. Her mother, Nancy, taught choir at the local high school and had a reputation for baking a mean sourdough focaccia. Joel, her father, worked as a handyman, installing custom countertops and shower basins, usually getting started before sunrise.
Elizabeth was the gabby, somewhat rebellious sister. Gwen, three years younger, was a quiet rule follower. “She let her sister do the talking for her,” says Nancy, who required the girls to play a musical instrument through high school. They both chose violin. Gwen wasn’t passionate about it, Nancy says, “but she had to do it well. She’s always had this personality where she doesn’t do anything unless she does it well.”
Jorgensen developed an early affinity for water at her grandma’s pool, which evolved into becoming a competitive swimmer at age eight. Over the years, that dedication would dictate every choice she made through most of her college years.
“There was something about being in the water,” Jorgensen says. “I’m an introvert, and being immersed in the water—it’s a very solo thing. I liked getting the work in and knowing that I was the one helping myself improve.”
Jorgensen also showed promise in running, though she’d only ever do it if it didn’t interfere with swimming. In elementary school PE—the only class she ever got a C in, because she couldn’t do a somersault—she had to run a mile around the school track. In a story her family loves to retell, she ran it so fast that her teachers didn’t think she’d completed all four laps and made her run one more.
When Jorgensen started high school at Waukesha South High, the track coach, Eric Lehmann, noted her effortless stride as well-suited for distance running. He asked Elizabeth, a senior on the team at the time, if she thought her sister would join. “I thought, good luck getting her to run!” Elizabeth says. “She’s going to swim.”
In those days, Jorgensen was known to have faded Sharpie marks permanently staining her forearms, remnants of where she’d inked her heat, lane, and event for swim meets. In her blue bedroom, among photos of her swim team, Jorgensen had arranged phosphorescent stars on the ceiling to write “5:15,” her goal time in the 500-yard freestyle. She fell asleep flat on her back every night looking up at the glowing numbers. Her priorities were clear.
Lehmann understood that swimming had to come first and allowed her to pop in for running workouts as she could, training during swimming’s off-season. It was the beginning of a lifelong pattern of people making accommodations for Jorgensen because, as Elizabeth says, they recognized her innate talent as a runner.
In swimming, Jorgensen was more determined than naturally gifted. She had her sights set on going to the Olympics as a swimmer, though she rarely scored at the state meet, which meant she couldn’t get a swimming scholarship to college. But she chose her school based on her swimming goals anyway, knowing the only way she’d improve was to swim with women who could kick her ass. Despite being an introverted homebody, Jorgensen initially thought she'd branch out for college. But she fell in love with the campus at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, and that settled it.
Jorgensen threw herself into swimming during her first three years as a Badger. While out of the pool, she discovered her analytical personality was a good fit for accounting. But at the end of her junior year, she found herself questioning her athletic goals for the first time. All of Jorgensen’s roommates were going to NCAAs, but she hadn’t placed high enough to score a spot at the national meet. “I felt like I had put everything into it, and I wasn’t improving,” she says. “I honestly got sick of swimming.”
Lehmann put a call in to the Wisconsin running coaches, even though Jorgensen was equivocal. She knew what it took to go from high school to college swimming. “I thought there’s no way I could make that jump to college running when I haven’t run in three years,” she says. But it turned out the Wisconsin coaches had already been talking about her.
“Her swim coach came into my office one day and said, ‘Hey, I think I’ve got a runner for you,’” says Jerry Schumacher, the men’s head cross-country coach and assistant track coach at Wisconsin at the time. (He left in 2008 and eventually became the head coach of Nike’s Bowerman Track Club.) Jorgensen’s passion for swimming was sapped, but her coach knew she loved to run and that she was built for speed on land.
Schumacher had no idea if Jorgensen had what it took to run Division I, but he spoke with the head coach of the women’s track and cross-country teams, Jim Stintzi, who gave Jorgensen a call, asking her to do a time trial of 400-meter repeats. Her efficiency and natural leg speed impressed him, so he threw her into the 1,500 meters in a meet the following week. “Not sure exactly what she ran,” Stintzi says, “but it was good enough that I was confident she had very solid potential. By the end of the season, I knew she could be really good.”
Jorgensen stayed on at Wisconsin for her masters in accounting, giving her two years of running eligibility, during which she accomplished more than she ever had in swimming. She earned All-American honors in both track and cross-country. She became the Big 10 champ in the 5,000 and 3,000 meters and went to the NCAA championships three times in track and twice in cross-country. It was a gratifying experience, but not one that led her to consider pursuing sports beyond college.
“I wasn’t good enough to go to the Olympics in swimming, so I gave up on my dream to go to the Olympics at all,” Jorgensen says. She had interned at Ernst & Young as a grad student and had a job offer lined up as a tax accountant. She settled into a post-collegiate routine of working 80-to-90-hour weeks and hobby jogging, hoping to pick up a few hundred dollars here and there at local 5Ks.
Then a representative from USA Triathlon reached out and planted the idea that she still had a shot at the Olympics—in a sport she’d never raced.
USA Triathlon was struggling after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. American triathletes hadn’t won a single medal, and the governing body had missed its most prominent opportunity to fulfill its mission to “grow and inspire” the triathlon community. It was experiencing a crisis of spirit, and it was also potentially missing out on extra cash from the U.S. Olympic Committee. (The organization favors proven winners and high-profile sports, and triathlon was neither.) USAT’s system for developing world-class athletes wasn’t optimal, and its recruitment strategy needed an overhaul.
“Top athletes from other sports just sort of found us,” says Scott Schnitzspahn, USAT’s sport performance director at the time. “We thought, let’s stop being lucky and go find these athletes.”
Leading the recruitment charge was Barb Lindquist, a 2004 U.S. Olympic triathlete who began to ping college running and swimming coaches across the country. One of her first finds was Jorgensen, whom she met in June 2009 at the NCAA championships.
It seemed like an opportune time to suggest triathlon; a stress fracture had forced Jorgensen to drop out of her last big collegiate meet. But Jorgensen already had her job lined up at Ernst & Young—an accomplishment not lost on her as a millennial graduating into a recession—and the pragmatist refused to be swayed: “I said I’m not going to be an athlete if I can’t support myself financially,” she says. Plus, she had officially put the pool behind her. And there was the not-so-small detail that she’d never ridden a road bike.
“It had to be a soft touch with her,” says Lindquist, who didn’t mind Jorgensen’s lack of cycling know-how. Think of Olympic triathlon as basically one long struggle to make it to the run in a good position. To have a shot at winning, an athlete has to be fast enough to stay with the lead pack through the 1.5K swim so they make it into the lead pack of cyclists. The 40K bike leg is like one big draft-legal circuit race. (As opposed to the typical amateur triathlon, in which athletes must not draft off other cyclists.) Drafting makes it difficult to break away and forces competitors to make tactical decisions: Should they pull away or tuck in and conserve energy? If a participant comes off the bike in the lead group, it all comes down to how fast she can run the final 10K, making Olympic triathlon favor those, like Jorgensen, whose strongest sport is running.
Lindquist tried to get Jorgensen into triathlon that fall, but she refused, not fully understanding that Olympic triathlon was vastly different than the ultra-distance Hawaii Ironman highlighted annually on NBC. She finally acquiesced in early 2010, thanks to Lindquist’s persistence and reassurance that it didn’t have to interfere with her job. Jorgensen could have a local coach and do the training in her own time. If she didn’t like it, she could walk away. Lindquist sealed the deal with a heartfelt truth: “I told her that, on paper, she had more potential than I did at draft-legal triathlon.”
Jorgensen started getting up between 3:30 and 4 a.m. to train before work. When she couldn’t make it to the local aquatic center, she’d tether herself in the pool at her downtown Milwaukee condo complex and swim in place. USAT set her up with Wisconsin-based coach Cindi Bannink, who largely sent workouts through the digital coaching platform TrainingPeaks for Jorgensen to execute on her own. Bannink also sent Jorgensen on group rides to work on her shaky bike-handling skills. On one of those rides, in June 2011, she met Lemieux, a pro cyclist from North Dakota who was getting in a workout as he passed through town. He was intrigued, and after post-ride burgers at Milwaukee’s Café Hollander, she was too. The two eventually began long-distance dating.
Soon after that, just 17 months after racing her first triathlon, Jorgensen placed second at a test event for the 2012 London Games, securing a spot on the Olympic team. “When I got back, I sat down with USA Triathlon and someone said to me, ‘Do you want to go?’” Jorgensen says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I have a choice. I don’t have to go—but if I do, I want to prepare, and I want to be successful.’” She took a leave of absence from her job and dove into training full-time. She hasn’t worked in an office since.
Heading into London, the United States looked to Jorgensen for a medal. Her family, who had rarely traveled until that point, came to London wearing T-shirts emblazoned with her face, which Jorgensen found terribly embarrassing. But she flatted on the bike, her first-ever flat in a race, and it killed her shot at the podium. She ran hard for a disappointing 38th place.
Jorgensen and Lemieux discussed next steps. “I said I wanted to go to Rio and I wanted to win gold,” Jorgensen says. With Lemieux’s help, she realized that wouldn’t happen while training alone in Wisconsin. Once again, she’d have to surround herself with athletes better than she was to get to the next level—to make the leap from a natural talent to a true champion. She’d also have to rewire her stereotypical accountant’s cautious mindset. “To do that,” she says, “We knew I had to take some big risks.”
Jamie Turner is an affable New Zealander known for building mentally unbreakable athletes. The 46-year-old former triathlete, now a bit soft around the edges, loves to speak in metaphors gleaned from lifelong study of performance. He picked up his favorite from legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (who got it from turn-of-the-century journalist Jacob Riis): “I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the 101st blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not the blow that did it but all that had gone before.”
Jorgensen had worked out with Turner’s squad when she was in Australia for a race. After interviewing coaches around the world, she felt she identified best with Turner’s mental strength–focused training method. He thought Jorgensen had the potential to be one of the best in the world—if she would commit to living in a daily performance environment with other dedicated athletes. She put the next four years of her life in his hands.
She packed up for Australia with Lemieux, who by then had quit his job as a cyclist to support her. (They weren’t yet engaged, but a proposal would come nearly a year later during a snowy mountain bike ride in St. Paul, Minnesota. They married in October 2014.) Lemieux sensed that Jorgensen needed the emotional support. “I just knew my not being there wasn’t helping her performance on race day,” he says, citing Jorgensen’s fourth-place finish at a race in Madrid. He’s certain she would’ve won if he had been there to help her adjust to the new, foreign environment before the race.
Jorgensen joined Turner’s squad of eight Olympic hopefuls from around the world, who had dubbed themselves the Wollongong Wizards, after the coastal city south of Sydney where they lived during the U.S. winter. Then she got to work.
Turner encouraged her to start a journal, documenting every day what she had done well and what she could improve upon, focusing on process rather than outcome: “I executed to the best of my ability” versus “I won.”
Turner asked her tough questions she’d never asked herself: Are you going to go last on the bike or will you be more assertive? What are you willing to change? He taught Jorgensen to see her decisions—to join the team, to leave her family and the comfort of home, to dedicate her life to Rio—as an investment, rather than a sacrifice. “We worked to move her away from the accounting mold into someone prepared to take risks and be accepting in her mentality, never to block something out,” Turner says. “We can accept that we’re not feeling very good and—not but—be able to perform.”
The results started coming that summer, when Jorgensen won a race in Stockholm, Sweden, on a technical bike course that tri pundits would have said didn’t favor a conservative rider like Jorgensen. “That race, I was like, ‘Wow! I’ve become a world-class swimmer, a world-class biker, a world-class runner,’” she says. But despite the gains she’d made physically and mentally, Jorgensen was already dreaming of ditching her bike and swimsuit to run full-time. Starting in 2013 and right on through the start of her winning streak, she was calling up running coaches to ask what they thought of her prospects as a pro marathoner.
Several said it would be an impossible task, but one left the door open: former Badger coach Jerry Schumacher, now one of the most lauded and respected coaches in the country.
When Jorgensen runs, it’s perhaps the only time she seems relaxed, her long, fluid stride balancing out the tension in her shoulders. Just like she had once loved the water for how it left her alone with her thoughts, she’s most comfortable out on remote roads with Lemieux towing Stanley in a bike trailer behind her. When she talks about marathoning, her voice perks up. “There’s something so special,” Jorgensen says, “about an entire city shutting down to let you do something that you love.”
Schumacher doesn’t mince words when he talks about why he brought Jorgensen into his Bowerman Track Club team, home of top American marathoners Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, I wouldn’t be interested in doing this,” he says of bringing an athlete from another sport onto the team. Schumacher knows it would be a cute story to say it’s because they’re from the same hometown or because of the Badger connection. “But the truth of the matter is she carries herself with such a high level of professionalism. She wants to do everything right and be the absolute best she can possibly be.”
Flanagan says Jorgensen’s dedication and big goals helped their friendship develop quickly and allowed Jorgensen to fit in naturally with the rest of her training group. “She wants to be pushed by other women. Not everyone wants that.”
But Jorgensen’s switch to running wasn’t without concrete consequences. In the three years up to and including Rio, Jorgensen averaged about $220,000 a year just in prize money, not counting a sponsorship with powerhouse sports brand Red Bull. Jorgensen speaks diplomatically about her tri sponsors, but it’s clear from her popular Instagram feed that Red Bull is no longer involved. “I’m a gold medalist in triathlon, not in marathon,” Jorgensen says. “It would be naive of me to expect the same salary. I’m chasing after the dream, not the money.”
Still, several sponsors stayed with her as she inked a deal with Nike, including Specialized, Oakley, and Polar. In the secretive world of pro running, it’s also tough to tell whether appearance fees could cover the prize-money income lost—but when it comes to winnings, Jorgensen would have to break the tape in at least two major marathons annually to get close to the pay she was enjoying as a dominant triathlete.
So far, Jorgensen’s switch to full-time running has yielded impressive results. In February, she ran a 15:15.64 5K, 35 seconds faster than her best collegiate time, and one that only nine U.S. women have beat this year. She followed that up with a 10K win at the Stanford Invitational in March, then finished fourth at the USA Track and Field Half Marathon Championships in May. For her first “real” shot at the marathon distance, Jorgensen’s tackling the Chicago Marathon on October 7. (In 2016, roughly two months after Rio, Jorgensen ran the New York City Marathon on little distance-running training, but she doesn’t consider it her official debut at the event. “I have harsh memories from the NYC Marathon, and I’m excited to run another marathon where I have properly trained,” Jorgensen says.)
Rather than setting a time goal for Chicago, the objective is to pace it right so Jorgensen has some speed left for the final 10K. Even with late scratches from top American contenders Cragg and Jordan Hasay, this edition of Chicago features a highly competitive elite women’s field, including two-time champion Florence Kiplagat.
Despite Jorgensen’s promising times so far, some members of the running peanut gallery may insist that her chances at dominating the marathon are slim. “It’s not about mindset,” says Robert Johnson, co-founder of the running website LetsRun.com and a former Cornell University cross-country and track coach. “Usain Bolt couldn’t even make himself the best 400-meter runner. You have your own event that you’re good at.”
Still, if Jorgensen could pull it off, Johnson says, “It would be the most amazing athletic feat of my lifetime.” One he believes even her greatest naysayers are internally rooting for. “Part of you wants to believe it’s possible, like it’s reminding us of what we dreamed as a little kid. That’s the goal: to dream big.”
Whatever happens in Chicago, Jorgensen’s fast-growing fan base will be proud. “I think people see in her what they want to do themselves—like those people working a job they’re good at but don’t love,” Lemieux says. “Here’s a woman who was literally the best, and she left to do something that she’s probably not going to be the best at.”
But then again, maybe she will be.