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Worth More Than Gold

By Sarah Wassner Flynn | Aug. 26, 2016, 11:24 a.m. (ET)

2016 Women's Olympic Triathlon Event

Why Gwen Jorgensen’s win in Rio will resonate for years to come

As Nicole Schmidt watched the Olympic triathlon last week from her home in Vienna, Virginia, she sat transfixed as Gwen Jorgensen, her favorite athlete — her idol — charged to the finish line. When Jorgensen raised the blue and green tape above her head in victory, Schmidt celebrated, too. “It was a powerful experience,” says the 16-year-old. “It showed me that incredible things are possible.”

Schmidt is not alone in her effusive admiration of triathlon’s golden girl. Over the past two years, Jorgensen’s dominance on the International Triathlon Union (ITU) scene —including a record-setting 12 straight victories in World Triathlon Series races — has ignited a fervent fan club. And now, post-Rio, the Gwensanity has only intensified. No longer is she simply a standout in a niche sport. With her beaming smile splashed across spreads in mainstream magazines and with significant airtime on NBC, CNN and CBS, Gwen Jorgensen is becoming a household name. Even Grammy-winning country singer Darius Rucker tweeted his congrats.

But once Jorgensen comes down from her Olympic high and returns to her regular — and relentless — training routine, the aftershocks of her victory will continue to be felt throughout the sport of triathlon. After all, now there are thousands of aspiring triathletes across the world, like Schmidt, who will seek to follow in Jorgensen’s bright blue racing flats. Forget Mike; we wanna be like Gwen.

“A Catalyst for Inspiration”
Swimming has Katie Ledecky. Gymnastics has Simone Biles. Running has Shalane Flanagan. And triathlon has Gwen. In Olympic years particularly, we tend to see athletic outliers emerge, those dominant-but-darling forces whose stories speak straight to our hearts, sparking dreams in kids and inspiring adults to get off the couch and go for that run or finally register for that race.

Gwen’s historic finish in Rio — buoyed by her relatable CPA-turned-triathlete backstory — could very well be the race to launch 1,000 registrations. Although the draft-legal Olympic event — in which participants stay tightly packed on the swim and bike, only to break loose on the run — is highly technical, that doesn’t necessarily detract from the allure of the sport.

“Swimming, biking, and running are things that a lot of family and youth are involved in at a recreational level, so it almost seems like a natural segue between leisure and sport,” says Nicole Manning, 17, who trains with the Machine M3 Youth Triathlon Team in Northern Virginia and has closely followed Jorgensen’s journey over the past few years. “After watching Gwen, it’s almost like, ‘if she can do it, why can’t I?’”

Rob Urbach, CEO of USA Triathlon, says Jorgensen’s Olympic win was a “game-changing moment.” Participation in the sport of triathlon has ballooned over the past decade, and he hopes that after Rio, the sport will only continue to grow, especially at the youth level.

“Certainly, Gwen’s gold is catalyst for inspiration. She is such a gracious winner and the embodiment of a professional, hard-working athlete,” says Urbach. “What makes the win so significant is that the sport is so much more popular today than ever before, and there are so many talented athletes out there. Her gold enhances how great our sport already is and where we’re going. Success begets success.”

Not So Niche

Andy Schmitz has had a front row view of this success in recent years. In fact, as the USA Triathlon High Performance General Manager — overseeing 40 USA Triathlon junior High Performance Teams around the country as well as the elite athlete programs — he has been instrumental in creating it. And Schmitz says that Jorgensen’s gold medal will only increase the sport’s momentum.

“Our membership is energized and many in the population were exposed to a sport they knew little about,” says Schmitz. “With triathlon earning Emerging Sport status for women from the NCAA, opportunities for young women will increase exponentially in the years ahead. Suddenly the pathway of this niche sport has the opportunity to lead to more than a far-fetched dream.”

Although she admits that the significance of her epic Olympic Games has yet to sink in, Jorgensen does recognize her influence on the next generation of triathletes. And she delights in knowing that the true value of her medal is worth much more than its weight in gold.

“I hope that getting a gold medal for the United States encourages people to get more involved, and to lead a healthy lifestyle,” she says. “The triathlon community is so wonderful and has given me so much. If others get at least half of what I’ve gotten out of this sport, then they’ll have an amazing experience.”

The Right Time
While Jorgensen’s gold medal is a first for any triathlete to wear the stars and stripes on the Olympic stage — and only the country’s second medal ever in the sport — chances are it will not be the last. Several other American women, including Olympians Sarah True and Katie Zaferes, have turned in impressive results in international events, and there’s a strong squad of talented triathletes, both male and female, already being groomed for the Tokyo Games and beyond from the youth level up.

“It’s a great time to be a triathlete,” says Urbach. “We have the systems in place, the coaches, the infrastructure. We have the top athletes in the world, and I believe we are in an extraordinary position for medals in 2020 and in future Olympics.”

Whether Jorgensen will once again top the podium in Tokyo remains to be seen. But her legacy will linger and undoubtedly serve as inspiration for triathletes of all levels in years to come.

“It’s crazy to think that I’m someone that people might look up to. If anything, I hope that winning an Olympic gold medal inspires kids and adults to go after their dreams,” says Jorgensen. “And that people will become more involved. Because anyone can become a triathlete.”

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Gwen Jorgensen

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