Gwen Jorgensen celebrates with her parents at a University of Wisconsin football game.
With the Rio 2016 Olympic triathlon just a month away, TeamUSA.org caught up with Gwen Jorgensen’s mom, Nancy, to see if her daughter, a gold-medal favorite, showed signs of athletic dominance in her youth.
The answer: No. And yes.
When she was in second or third grade, Gwen discovered swim team after a local club in her hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin, offered a fun, one-day simulated swim meet for local youngsters. From that first taste of competitive swimming, Gwen asked her parents if she could join the local swim team.
“From then on, that was what she wanted to do,” said Nancy, an author and recently retired music educator.
Gwen showed talent in the pool, qualifying for the state championships in the freestyle events all four years at Waukesha South High School and earning MVP honors four times.
But she never won a state title and was not fast enough to earn an athletic scholarship to a NCAA Division I school. Instead, she matriculated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and walked on to the Badger swim team.
“I didn’t really think [the Olympics] was in her future because if you’re not the best in the state of Wisconsin, what would lead us to think she was the best in the country?” asked Nancy.
If passion did not translate to the success in the pool, Gwen’s determination and perseverance hinted at her potential.
The Jorgensens had a rule in the house that Gwen and her older sister, Elizabeth, had to participate in one fine art in addition to a sport. Both girls chose violin. But Gwen was not happy if orchestra practice or a performance took her away from the pool. She would insist on finding a pool where she could train after the orchestra obligation.
And when it came to college, she refused to consider less-competitive NCAA Division II or III programs. She wanted to swim for a Big Ten school, even though she would never end up qualifying to compete at the NCAA championships.
“She was determined that if she swam with better swimmers, she would get better,” explained Nancy. “She wanted somebody to push her, so she wanted to go to a Big Ten school and did not get a scholarship. She had that in her head, if somebody kept pushing her and she went to a top school, she would get to the place she wanted to be.”
Then there was the home video that the Jorgensens recently discovered. In it, Gwen is young enough that her two permanent front teeth have just come in (perhaps 8 years old). The Jorgensens were visiting family in Salt Lake City, and Gwen was on the front lawn running through a sprinkler. With a big toothy grin, she looked at her uncle and asked, “Can you do anything a girl can do?”
She then danced and somersaulted around the yard.
“I didn’t even think anything at the time,” said Nancy. “We just thought it was funny, you can hear us laughing in the background.”
|Gwen Jorgensen crosses the finish line at a World Triathlon Series on June 12, 2016 in Leeds, England.|
Knowing what she knows now of her 30-year-old daughter — who has won 17 ITU World Triathlon Series races so far in her career — she marvels at Gwen’s precociousness.
“She had some confidence, and nobody told her that a girl couldn’t do something,” added Nancy. “She wondered if a grown man could do what she could do. Looking back on it 20 years later, there’s some insight there.”
Where Gwen’s athletic talent really showed was on the track. During dryland training for swimming her freshman year in high school, the track coach happened to notice Gwen running. He told Elizabeth, then a senior, that she should convince her younger sister to come out for track.
“I think at first Elizabeth was reluctant,” said Nancy. “’No, this is my thing; I’m the runner, and my sister’s the swimmer,’ she thought. In the end, it was all fine.”
Her sophomore year in high school, Gwen qualified for states in track. But junior year, she told the track coach that she was going to focus on swimming.
She returned to track for her senior year, but Nancy remembered that her daughter gave the track coach an ultimatum, “I’ll run, but I’m not giving up one swim practice.”
Still, Gwen qualified for states in track.
Then at University of Wisconsin, Gwen finished seventh in the 5,000-meter run at the 2008 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships. She was also 2009 Big Ten champion in the 5,000 and 3,000 and earned All-America honors in both track and cross country. She graduated in 2008 with a 3.90 GPA and a degree in accounting, then earned her masters in 2009.
And she finally dropped swimming after her junior year in college.
Of her perseverance to stick with a sport in which she wasn’t the best for over a decade, Nancy said, “That is her personality. When she decides to do something, she’s all in.”
In 2010, Gwen joined USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program and now could be the poster child for that successful program. In her first competitive triathlon, she earned her elite card to compete with the pros.
Of her 17 WTS wins, she won 12 titles from May 2014 to April of this year, an unprecedented win streak in triathlon. And the two-time world champion won the test event in Rio last August, earning a nomination to her second Olympic team. Gwen is the first triathlete to win back-to-back world titles and the first to do so with a perfect score.
Surprisingly, Gwen is heading to Rio in an unfamiliar role. For the first time in three years, she is not leading the WTS standings.
But, she pointed out during a conference call in June, the WTS is not her focus this year. She has only attended four of the seven races this season and only triathlons that have been geographically convenient to attend.
Her focus this year is on Rio. As she has said repeatedly since she had a mechanical issue with her bike at the London Olympics and finished 38th, “It’s been my goal to win gold in Rio.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.