RIO DE JANEIRO — In the past four years, Gwen Jorgensen has geared everything toward this one day.
After suffering a flat tire in the London 2012 Olympic Games triathlon and finishing 38th, she was determined to win gold in Rio.
Jorgensen, 30, gave her life over to triathlon, and soon, she was dominating the ITU World Triathlon Series, winning an unprecedented 12 races in a row — and 17 total.
In Rio, she simply had to stay upright — without any mechanicals — during the bike leg, and with her gazelle-like run, lope to the finish.
Or so most people thought.
Little did anyone expect someone to challenge Jorgensen in her best event — the run.
But defending Olympic champion Nicola Spirig from Switzerland was right there in the run, glued to Jorgensen on a warm cloudy day as they ran the avenue along Copacabana Beach. Spirig has been mostly absent from the ITU’s World Triathlon Series races since London, and in March, she broke her hand in a bad crash, then had surgery. She came to Rio with three plates and 23 screws in her left hand. Few knew how strong she would be.
On the bell lap of the run, Jorgensen made her move, extending her long stride and leaving the Swiss triathlete behind.
Jorgensen claimed the Olympic gold medal that she had so meticulously planned to win. Showing more emotion than she is known for, she finished in 1:56:16. Spirig held on for the silver medal, 40 seconds back (1:56:56). Vicky Holland from Great Britain crossed the line another five seconds behind Spirig for the bronze medal (1:57:01).
“I’ve said for four years that this is my goal, August 20, I want to cross that line, I want to get a gold medal,” Jorgensen said. “It’s pretty incredible that I was actually able to do it. Four years comes down to one day. To be able to perform on the day is something pretty amazing.”
In a sport that U.S. athletes invented back in the late 1970s, but one in which they had only won one Olympic bronze medal since the sport’s debut at the 2000 Games, it was a long time coming. Susan Williams, who won that bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Games, is the only American triathlete until Rio who had stood on an Olympic podium, although three others had come close (Joanna Zeiger, Laura Bennett and Sarah [Groff] True all finished fourth in 2000, 2008 and 2012, respectively).
The race started as expected, with the athletes charging through oncoming waves on Copacabana Beach.
Katie Zaferes was the first American out of the water — in second behind Spain’s Carolina Routier. Jorgensen and Sarah True were close behind.
But on the bike leg, Spirig initiated her race plan. The Swiss triathlete, who has only completed two WTS races since London (and has not competed against Jorgensen since the 2012 Games), surged repeatedly off the front.
“It would have been nice to get a breakaway,” said Spirig. “But my main goal was that all the athletes would get off the bike with tired legs because I’m convinced I’m one of the strongest runners if it’s about running with tired legs.”
Holland thought Spirig’s tactic actually played into Jorgensen’s hand.
“If I’m honest, I think that probably negated the chances we had,” said the British triathlete. “It meant that the rest of the pack was unwilling to do too much. With all those surges going off the front, why would anyone else work with you if you’re just going to keep attacking us?”
“If we’d just absolutely drilled the first two laps as a group,” Holland added, “I think maybe that would have hurt Gwen more.”
Perhaps hurting most on the bike was True, 34, who suffered knee pain coming out of the water and could not push hard on her pedals. She soon stopped (she did not crash) and rubbed her knee. She tried to carry on but was soon pulled from the race by officials.
Zaferes, 27, also suffered on the fast bike leg, occasionally getting yo-yoed off the back of the lead pack, then having to catch back on. By the run, she did not have much left.
“It was a fight to keep going,” she said. “I tried to go with every person who passed me, but didn’t last very long.”
Zaferes finished 18th in her Olympic debut.
Meanwhile, at the front of the pack, Jorgensen took off after Spirig as soon as she left the bike/run transition. In most of her wins, Jorgensen has simply run by those in front of her, then run alone to the finish.
Not in Rio.
Spirig hung with Jorgensen for over three-quarters of the 10-kilometer run. Running into a headwind, with neither wanting to lead, they were seen chatting, and both said it was a mental game.
“Come on, we share the work,” Spirig told Jorgensen.
Jorgensen refused, saying that she had been leading earlier in the run.
Spirig replied, “Well, I already have a medal, so it’s you who has to work.”
Shortly after the conversation, Jorgensen kicked it up a notch and surged ahead of Spirig.
“I tried everything, and she was just too strong,” said Spirig. “She deserves the gold medal. I’m very happy to have the silver medal.”
As Jorgensen neared the finish line, she looked back briefly, then broke into a smile — a rare display of emotion for the triathlete who started her career while still a full-time accountant.
It was the culmination of a very focused four-year journey for Jorgensen, who is the star of USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program. After finishing 38th at the London Games, Jorgensen decided to invest everything in triathlon, hoping that the payoff would be an Olympic gold medal in Rio.
She and now-husband Patrick Lemieux packed up and moved to Australia, where Jorgensen trained with coach Jamie Turner and his Wollongong Wizards.
“I knew that I needed to be in a daily performance group where I was training basically with my direct competitors,” said Jorgensen. “I looked at different coaches and found Jamie Turner, who is I believe the best triathlon coach in the world.”
Between 2013 and the Rio Olympic Games, Jorgensen won 17 WTS races, a dominating streak that made her a heavy favorite to win in Rio. But anything can happen on race day — as Jorgensen knew all too well from her experience at the London Games.
“It’s pretty crazy to show up on the day after four years and be able to accomplish what I said I’ve wanted to accomplish for four years,” Jorgensen said, with the gold medal draped around her neck. “It’s a huge testament to both my husband Patrick Lemieux and my coach Jamie Turner. They have invested way more in me than anyone will ever know unless they’ve seen us work together. This is as much their medal as it is mine.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.