In her four consecutive World Triathlon Series wins this season, Gwen Jorgensen has made it look easy. With her gazelle-like run, she has galloped by stronger swimmers and cyclists to claim solo wins, far ahead of her rivals.
No other female triathlete has won as many WTS races as Jorgensen — seven total, including three in 2013. And none have won four in a row, let alone five.
From the sidelines, the 28-year-old triathlete appears to be redefining her sport, with the swim and bike legs serving merely as warm-ups to her real race, the run.
But Jorgensen and her coach, Jamie Turner, do not necessarily agree with either assessment. Jorgensen says her wins have been anything but easy. And Turner sees Jorgensen’s dominant performance this year as just another ebb and flow in the sport.
Jorgensen is now gearing up for the WTS Grand Final in Edmonton, Alberta, on Saturday, Aug. 30. Although U.S. teammate Sarah Groff won the WTS race in Stockholm last Saturday — a race that Jorgensen skipped — Jorgensen is still the overwhelming favorite to win in Edmonton.
If she does — in fact, if she finishes 16th or higher, no matter where her rivals finish — she will become the first U.S. triathlete to win the overall WTS title. Only one other American has finished on the WTS overall podium; Groff took third overall in 2011. Groff is currently ranked second overall and must have a top finish and beat Britain’s Jodie Stimpson in Edmonton to remain there.
But the overall WTS title is just a step on Jorgensen’s Road to Rio, a trip that began after she finished 38th at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
If she wanted an Olympic medal, Jorgensen knew that she needed to make some changes. Shortly after the London Games, she joined Turner’s Wollongong Wizards in Wollongong, Australia, for a few training sessions before the 2012 WTS Grand Final in Auckland.
“I was really impressed with how the group was run,” she said on a teleconference call from Edmonton. “Jamie handles his athletes in a way that everyone is able to push each other and get along and work together and really make the whole group better.”
Other Wollongong Wizards include former U23 world champions Aaron Royle and Charlotte McShane, both from Australia.
While some may think of moving halfway around the world as a sacrifice for sport, Jorgensen, an accountant, saw it as an investments in her future. An All-American in the 5,000-meter at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jorgensen was already a fast runner. Turner knew that she needed to improve “the front end of the race” — the swim and the bike.
Her progress was on display at the Yokohama and London WTS races in May 2014. In Yokohama — her first WTS win this season — she broke free of the front pack 3 kilometers into the run and ran solo the final 7k, finishing 28 seconds ahead. In London, she was alone after the first lap of the four-lap, 5k run.
“I had really good swims, was in the front bike pack, then had excellent runs,” she explained. “It’s nice when I’m able to execute on all three — the swim, the bike and the run.”
At the Chicago and Hamburg WTS races, she struggled in the swim and bike but used her strength as a runner to take over the lead. In Chicago, she came off the bike with 17 people ahead of her on the run and 52 seconds out of first; in Hamburg, she was in a group of 30. She passed them all.
“If it comes down to a running race, it’s mine to lose,” she said. “But when I start running, I never think I’ve got this in the bag.”
So far for Jorgensen, every triathlon seems to come down to a running race. She usually runs about 10 seconds per mile faster than her closest competitors in 10k runs and 6-10 seconds faster in 5k’s. Thus, in Olympic-distance triathlons, if she is within a minute of the leaders at the start of the run, she has a good chance of winning.
Which makes it look as if Jorgensen is redefining triathlon as a running race with some cross-training beforehand.
But Turner sees her style as just another in a series of changes in the sport. In the mid-1990s, Australian Emma Carney won two world championship titles and dominated the world cup with her intensity. Then in the early 2000s, Americans Barb Lindquist and Siri Lindley “didn’t have [Gwen’s] running prowess, but they took the race away from their competitors in the front end,” Turner pointed out.
Lindley won 13 triathlon world cups and was ranked first overall in the ITU World Cup series in 2001 and 2002. A 2004 Olympian, Lindquist won the overall world cup series title in 2003.
“Now we’re seeing Gwen being dominant in the back end of the race,” he said. “The sport has gone through a number of redefinitions, you could say, through these star athletes. This is just a period of time where Gwen is able to dominate racing through her run performance.”
The plan in Edmonton is, of course, to run fast and also swim and bike fast.
After the race, Jorgensen and her fiancé, Patrick Lemieux, will return home to St. Paul, Minnesota, eight months to the day they left for the 2014 season. Their wedding date is Oct. 4.
Then Jorgensen will once again focus on growing her investment: working on the front end of her race so that she can simply run away from the leaders rather than play a game of catch up.
As for Jorgensen’s potential in triathlon, Turner will give her competitors pause by saying, “the best is yet to come.”
“It’s all well and good if you perform really well in the [WTS] series,” he added. “But at the end of the day, the Holy Grail is to demonstrate performance on one day in Rio. That’s what we work towards now.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.