When Stephanie Jenks applied for the inaugural Gwen Jorgensen Scholarship, she tempered her expectations a bit. After all, she knew there would be plenty of hopefuls vying for financial support from the world’s top-ranked triathlete.
So when the high school junior learned she’d be among the winners, she was understandably surprised.
“I knew that there were going to be a lot of submissions,” said Jenks, of Aurora, Iowa. “I wasn’t going to be upset if I didn’t get it, but I was pretty shocked when I received an email from her saying, ‘Hey, can I call you?’”
|Stephanie Jenks crosses the finish line of the women's triathlon at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games on Aug. 17, 2014.|
Only 13 of the more than 100 original applicants received that call, earning a piece of Jorgensen’s $23,000 fund to “help build the younger generation of the sport.” Only triathletes under the age of 19 and organizations supporting them were eligible for the award.
The idea was the brainchild of Jorgensen and husband Patrick Lemieux. Each had wanted to donate money to a worthy cause but couldn’t agree on exactly where.
“He said, ‘Well, we’re both passionate about triathlon. Why don’t we give back to that?’” Jorgensen, a 2012 U.S. Olympian, recalled. “I thought that was a great idea.”
They started with $5,000 of their own money and, through donations and matching grants from the New York Athletic Club, swim apparel company ROKA and the USA Triathlon Foundation, soon built their fund to $23,000. Other companies also offered discounts on products.
Perhaps even more difficult than raising the funds, however, was trying to figure out how they would be distributed.
A call for applications elicited more than 100 responses.
“We asked them what they would use the funds for,” said Jorgensen, who was recruited to triathlon from the University of Wisconsin, where she was an All-American runner in track and cross country and also swam three years. “Some people were like, ‘I can’t go to a race because I don’t have money, so I’m going to use it for travel.’ Some people said, ‘I want to use it to go to a junior select camp, so I’m going to use it for that.’ Some people needed equipment, a bike, a watch.
“One person said, ‘All I want is two Garmin watches for my team.’ We’re like, ‘OK, that’s easy.’”
Jorgensen and Lemieux read through every application, then narrowed them down to a list of about 30 finalists.
“There were clear winners that were interesting to read, intriguing, visually appealing,” said Jorgensen, who sought help from the sport’s governing body, USA Triathlon, to help determine who received funds. “It was hard when you read some of the stories and you’re like, ‘I really, really want to give to you,’ and there would just be a different application that was a little bit better. It was really hard to make those decisions.”
The couple revealed the winners, who each received different amounts, earlier this month. Aside from Jenks, they included Tamara Gorman, Austin Hindman, Sophie Malowiecki, Michael Milic, Graham Pimentel, Ricardo and Josue Reyes, Addison Smith, Joey West, Elite Multisport, Innovative Endurance, Streamline Events and Z3.
Jorgensen and Lemieux plan to continue awarding scholarships through the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games and already have committed $5,000 toward next year’s fund. Photographer Paul Phillips recently auctioned off signed photos of Jorgensen to help aid the effort.
More donations, however, are always needed. Jorgensen said those interested in helping pave the way for future triathletes should contact her at email@example.com.
Jenks, who celebrated her 17th birthday in August by earning a silver medal at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, hopes to use the award to help continue her rapid ascension through the junior ranks.
While declining to reveal specifics, she said she plans to use the scholarship to bolster her training.
“I don’t have a whole lot more time in my day to train more, so it’s just going to be strengthening the things that I’m weakest in,” Jenks said. “Gwen is a great lady. She supports us even when she has a race the next day. Being able to receive a scholarship from her, it’s quite an honor.”
Jorgensen said Jenks had all the right credentials, as well as a top-notch application.
“We know that USA Triathlon has their eye set on her for the future of triathlon, and I know her from racing previously,” Jorgensen said. “I know that she’s one who’s really doing everything she can in the sport to improve.”
For Jorgensen, the process was gratifying. It not only allowed her to get better acquainted with some of the nation’s top young triathletes, but also give them a little boost toward their dreams.
“I’ve been given so much from USA Triathlon, sponsors and people everywhere in the world,” Jorgensen said. “I wanted to give something back to the future of the sport.”
Rich Scherr is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared frequently in The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, as well as numerous other publications. He also serves as the editor of Potomac Tech Wire and Bay Area Tech Wire. Scherr is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.