CHICAGO — Gwen Jorgensen is to triathlon what Usain Bolt is to sprinting. Or what Katie Ledecky is to swimming.
At the 2015 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final Chicago, Jorgensen capped off a perfect season with her 12th consecutive World Triathlon Series win and second world championship title.
The 29-year-old is the first woman to win the world title with a flawless season, the second U.S. woman to win two career titles and the first U.S. woman to win back-to-back world championships.
Jorgensen finished in 1:55:36, well ahead of British duo Non Stanford and Vicky Holland. American Sarah True finished seventh in Chicago, to claim third in the series and her third world championships medal.
The world title wasn’t even Jorgensen’s primary goal this season. Her main objective was to qualify for her second Olympic team, which she did by winning the Rio test event in August.
“To look at the past season, it’s pretty nuts,” she said. “It’s not something I ever would have imagined, that I’ve been able to perform on so many different courses, feeling different — good, bad, sick, healthy. It’s just been incredible.”
But she wasn’t buying the dominant athlete moniker.
“There are people like Javier Gomez, who’s going for his fifth ITU world championship (tomorrow), and I’ve only done two now,” she said. “There’s a lot of other athletes, you can look at someone like Michael Jordan, athletes who have really been dominant, and I don’t think I come anywhere near them.”
But she does finally believe that she belongs on the World Triathlon Series podium. It’s a change that her husband, Patrick Lemieux, has noticed — and it’s perhaps one of the keys to her success.
“Slowly but surely, she’s finding some self-confidence and self-belief and saying, ‘OK, I’ve earned my spot on the podium, the other girls have to try really hard to beat me,’” he said.
Jorgensen’s confidence and belief have come not just from her 12 straight WTS wins — and 14 overall — but also from her complete focus on triathlon. A former accountant, Jorgensen first tried triathlon in 2010 through USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program and quickly progressed.
After getting a flat tire during the 2012 Olympic triathlon and finishing 38th, Jorgensen immediately set her sights on Rio.
“Leading into London 2012, it was ‘Am I supposed to be here? Am I supposed to be an accountant? What am I supposed to be doing with my life?’” said Lemieux. “After (London), the goal was very clear and concise: ‘I’m going to do four years, and I’m going to do everything I have to do to win a gold medal. I’m going to find the best coach, I’m going to invest fully in myself and others, and I’m going to see what happens.’”
What has happened is that every other woman in the elite field is now essentially racing for second place. With her dominant running style, Jorgensen has left everyone in her wake, even when she has had to come from behind after a tough swim or bike leg.
But in the Chicago Grand Final, she made it look easy.
She came out of the swim just five seconds off the leaders and stayed with the front pack of 29 cyclists.
By the first kilometer of the run, she was in front with Stanford and Holland. Stanford was pushing the pace. But Jorgensen was running comfortably and looked like a cat toying with two mice.
With two kilometers to go in the 10-kilometer run, Jorgensen surged and opened a huge gap almost immediately on the two British women.
“That’s a bit trademark of Gwen at the moment, and it shows how strong she is,” said Holland. “She can do a whole race pretty much faultless. She comes out with two kilometers to go and puts in a surge and leaves us for dead. That’s the level she’s at at the moment. We’ve got a year to work on closing that gap.”
Other competitors are hoping that Jorgensen’s form won’t hold.
“Maybe she’s just on a roll at the moment,” said Andrea Hewitt, a New Zealander who finished fourth in the race and second overall in the WTS. “The fitness can’t stay at the top the whole time.”
While her competitors start plotting how to beat her, Jorgensen isn’t looking beyond the next three months. She is going home for the first time since Dec. 31, 2014, when she left to train with coach Jamie Turner and the Wollongong Wizards in Australia.
She will take two weeks completely off, then stay fit doing whatever looks fun — cyclocross, mountain biking and maybe even cross-country skiing.
“If I don’t fall on my butt too much,” Jorgensen joked.
It’s hard to imagine.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.