Gwen Jorgensen celebrates as she crosses the finish line at the ITU World Triathlon Chicago on June 28, 2014 in Chicago.
CHICAGO — In the Chicago heat, Gwen Jorgensen crossed the finish line and put her hands to her face in disbelief.
The 28-year-old triathlete from St. Paul, Minnesota, had overcome a huge 52-second deficit after the bike leg to win the ITU World Triathlon Chicago, her third straight World Triathlon Series (WTS) victory and sixth overall. Since the WTS began in 2009, no other woman has won six races and only two others — Emma Moffatt from Australia and Paula Findlay from Canada — have won three in a row.
But the record means little to the tall, lithe triathlete who slays her foes with her gazelle-like run.
“It’s not something I focus on,” Jorgensen said. “I just wanted to come out here and do the best that I could.”
Even with the win, she wasn’t happy with her swim in Lake Michigan or bike leg around downtown Chicago’s Grant Park. She came out of the water 15th, then rode in the chase group on the bike leg, losing 52 seconds over eight laps of the criterium-like course, with dozens of right angles and 180-degree turns.
Jorgensen crossed the finish line in 1:55:33, a decisive 20 seconds ahead of Helen Jenkins from Britain. Juri Ide from Japan held on for third in 1:56.
“Looking back on this race, I’m still going to have to work on my swim and my bike,” Jorgensen said. “But I’m thrilled to win on home soil. The crowd really encouraged me throughout it.”
The race came down to the run for Jorgensen, a former All-American in the 5,000-meter run for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Badgers. And Jorgensen’s opponents knew it. Jenkins pushed the pace in the lead group during the bike portion, trying to gain a significant gap on Jorgensen. The gap stretched to over a minute at one point, but by the bike-run transition was 52 seconds.
“I knew I’d need a few minutes (going into the run) today,” said Jenkins, a former triathlon world champion who recently returned to competition after a back injury sidelined her since the London Olympic Games. “I’ve been running really well in training, and I thought a minute, if I kept myself together, it might be enough.”
It wasn’t. Clicking off the miles at a 5:30 pace, Jorgensen rapidly picked off the 17 women in front of her after the bike. At the run’s halfway mark, she had moved into fifth, only 33 seconds behind Jenkins and Ide.
In the fourth and final lap, Jorgensen caught the frontrunners, then stayed with them.
“I was really tired,” confessed Jorgensen. “I didn’t have enough energy right then to make a big surge, so I just wanted to collect myself and see what I had left.”
Less than a mile from the finish, she surged, leaving Jenkins and Ide in her wake.
With her six wins, Jorgensen has become the poster child for USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program, started in 2009 by 2004 Olympian Barb Lindquist. Jorgensen was one of the first athletes to participate in the program.
“A lot of us could see back then that she had the goods,” said Lindquist, who found the first email that she had sent to Jorgensen back in March 2009. In the email, she told Jorgensen, then still in college, that on paper, she had more potential in triathlon than Lindquist, who had been a standout swimmer at Stanford.
Jorgensen was hesitant about participating in the CRP at first. She was about to graduate with a degree in accounting and had a full-time job lined up in Milwaukee. Lucky for USA Triathlon, Lindquist won her over.
Jorgensen became the first American woman to qualify for the 2012 Olympic triathlon. But she had a disappointing Games. She flatted during the bike leg and finished 38th. The tough result fueled her motivation, and since crossing the finish line in London, she has been focused on the 2016 Rio Games.
What others see as sacrifices for her sport, Jorgensen — trained in finance — sees as investments.
Her main investment was moving to Wollongong, Australia (halfway between Sydney and Melbourne), after the 2012 season to train with coach Jamie Turner and a talented group of triathletes that call themselves the Wollongong Wizards. In the summer, they are based in Spain.
The move worked. Jorgensen had a breakout season in 2013, becoming the first American to win an ITU WTS event in San Diego. She followed that up with two more WTS wins, and her streak has continued this season. With three wins so far in 2014, she leads the WTS standings.
Jorgensen credits Turner with turning her into a “complete athlete.”
“He instills really good values into us just as athletes and people,” she explained. “He’s always challenging us, asking us why we’re doing certain things and just making sure we know why we are training certain ways and why we act certain ways and how we should think.”
Turner has also worked to improve Jorgensen’s swim and bike legs. Her run, though, seems just about perfect.
Also on Jorgensen’s support team is her fiancé Patrick Lemieux, a pro cyclist. The two became engaged last December, with Oct. 4, 2014 as their wedding date.
Between now and then are three more WTS races, and Jorgensen would again like to literally run away with wins.
“Gwen’s racing and the level of running in the sport this year, every athlete who’s not Gwen is wondering how can I run as fast as Gwen?” said Jenkins. “To be honest, I haven’t formed some master plan that I’m hatching in the background.”
But Jorgensen does have a master plan. And it’s to win gold in Rio.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org and has covered three Olympic Games. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.