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Gwen Jorgensen knew it. She just didn't want to believe it.  

So she shouted to a rider with a better view. 

“Do I have a flat?” 

“Yes.”

“Are you sure? You need to be sure!” she urged.

“Yes! You have a flat.”

So, roughly 40 minutes into her Olympic debut, she stopped, ejected her rear wheel, and swapped it for another while a half-dozen people passed her. She would later discover that a tiny piece of glass had split her tire.

Yet she pedaled on, aware that her blazing running speed wouldn’t be enough to carry her to the Olympic podium — a place where just one American had stood in the 12 years since triathlon was added to the Games.

Instead, Jorgensen finished 38th.

“Oh, I just cried,” said her older sister, Elizabeth, who watched on the sidelines in London. “That’s my role in the family; I’m the crier.”

Not Gwen. Immediately, she thought, What can I do to get gold in Rio?

gwen jorgensen running in HSAudacious? Maybe. 

At that point, Jorgensen had not even been competing for two-and-a-half years. She was coached remotely, swam with a club team and rode with local pros in Wisconsin. Frankly, no one really expected her to show up at the 2011 London test event and automatically qualify for the Olympic team 2 hours and 41 seconds later, with a silver medal around her neck. When she was coaxed into the sport, she didn’t even have a proper road bike. And before that, in 2009, she didn’t even know triathlon was in the Olympics. 

Furthermore, she was so unaggressive as a child that her older sister would constantly speak for her. In the car, when her mother asked a question and heard no reply, she’d peek in the rear-view and see Gwen nodding. In grade school, she finished running a mile so quickly that a teacher thought she cut corners and made her do an extra lap — while a pair of twins in her sister’s class were excelling in flexibility tests (like the sit-and-reach) and being told they were destined for the Olympics. The twins, Paul and Morgan Hamm, did go to the Games, twice, in gymnastics — but, as Elizabeth said, “No one ever said that to Gwen. Instead, she got an additional lap.”

Later, when Gwen became a top violinist in high school, her parents told the orchestra director that they doubted whether she had the bold temperament to be a concertmaster. (She ultimately assumed the role, even though she didn’t enjoy the spotlight.) At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she competed in swimming for three years because she loved the water, but when she told her coaches she might switch to track, they suggested it was OK to move on.

But Jorgensen firmly believed in herself. Whatever she aspired to, she achieved. Whether it was a 4.0 GPA, a running scholarship as a walk-on, a master’s in accounting or a job at Ernst & Young. Finally, 2004 Olympic triathlete Barb Lindquist realized that Jorgensen was too driven and too talented to ignore and recruited her for triathlon.

So ‘gold in Rio?’
Why not?

But Jorgensen couldn’t prepare for her second Olympic Games the same way she did for her first. She’d need a real training group, and she’d have to really commit. 

So shortly after London, she traveled to Wollongong, Australia, about 50 miles southwest of Sydney, to train with Jamie Turner’s elite group. “She was very novice on the bike, and she wasn’t comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Turner recalled. “But there was a lot of potential under the bonnet.”

That October, after spending just one month with Turner, Jorgensen placed second at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Auckland, New Zealand.

Cindi Bannink, her coach of three years, realized what was happening. ”I think Gwen said, ‘Oh! Now I get it! Now I see how an environment like that could be helpful for me,’” so the two parted amicably at the end of 2012.

If Jorgensen was going to leave her family and an accounting career in Wisconsin, one of the keys was that her boyfriend (now husband) Patrick Lemieux made the move with her. Lemieux was a pro cyclist whom she’d met during a training ride in the summer of 2011 who had also been a tremendous teacher on the bike.  

He agreed, so the couple relocated to Australia in January 2013. Initially, Lemieux assumed he’d train in his free time and just “be there” for Gwen. “But I realized that the more work I did, the more success Gwen was going to have because she could just focus on training and recovery,” he said.

So he jettisoned his own athletic career and started to do all her cooking, cleaning, bike assembly and chores. His efforts were so thorough that Jorgensen didn’t even touch a trash bag for months. 

“Finally, at the end of the year, she says, ‘I’ll take out the garbage.’ Ten minutes later, she comes back and goes, ‘I don’t know where the garbage can is,’” Lemieux said. “That’s when I knew I was taking really good care of her.

“Ultimately, how she does is how we do. My work is a direct reflection of her success,” he said.   

gwen and patrickBut Turner had to draw the line at least once — for Jorgensen’s athletic sake. 

Since Turner can’t force his athletes to change their behavior, he gives them “betterment tasks,” and Jorgensen’s task was to stop “one-potting.”

“Patrick would cook oats in the morning,” Turner explained, “and they’d be eating out of the same pot like little cupids, with butterflies and hearts flying around them. I said, ‘Pat’s eating too much of your food. You need to have greater control over your serving sizes. Let’s reduce the one-pot frequency.’ Telling the little cupids they can’t have this lovey moment was a challenge for Gwen. But she took it up.”

All the while, Jorgensen’s triathlon skills were improving, but there were critics. Lemieux heard it all: Oh, she’s only good because she runs fast. Oh, she’s only good on easy bike courses. Oh, she’s only good in wetsuit races.

Gradually, Jorgensen contradicted all the nay-saying. She’d string together good results on difficult bike courses, she’d race well without a wetsuit. And finally, in Stockholm, on Aug. 24, 2013, Jorgensen had a world-class swim, a world-class ride and a world-class run, to score her third World Triathlon Series victory.

Even now, Jorgensen calls it, “one of the most successful races I’ve had.”

The euphoria was short-lived, though. Eight months later, in April 2014, Jorgensen considered quitting.  

It wasn’t just her 12th-place result at ITU World Triathlon Auckland. She said she’d failed mentally there.

Her third place at the next race, in Cape Town, South Africa, was no solace because she said she failed to perform physically.

Suddenly, she was questioning her ability. “I thought maybe I just don’t have what it takes on race day. I should just stop.”

“She was pretty serious about quitting,” Lemieux said. “I supported her if she wanted to do that.”

But he and Turner suggested she take a week or two to think about it.

So Jorgensen and Lemieux went on a short holiday and did no training. After three days, Jorgensen couldn’t wait to start again. 

And that was it. She never considered quitting again. 

“I felt I had more in me, more to give, and wanted to prove to myself I could do it,” she said.

At the next race, in Yokohama, Japan, Jorgensen was back on top, and her victory marked the first of 12 consecutive wins on the ITU World Triathlon Series circuit (including two world championships). 

gwen in hamburgThe streak finally snapped 23 months later, on April 9, 2016, when Helen Jenkins of Great Britain beat Jorgensen by 41 seconds at Gold Coast, Australia. Lost in the headlines was the fact that some nations used the event as an Olympic qualifier so some triathletes were peaking specifically for that day. (Jorgensen, however, had won the Olympic test event the previous summer and was already Rio-bound, so her training was aimed at Aug. 20.)

Nonetheless, Jorgensen won the very next race, in Yokohama in May, and another one in June, in Leeds, with a spectacular run that required her to close a gap of more than 90 seconds.

Still, her competitors wonder:

How does she do it? What’s her secret to consistency? 

One factor is that she’s had no long interruptions in her training. Aside from a crash on her hip at the end of the 2013 season that caused her to DNF at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final London, she’s been healthy for the past four years. 

Equally important, Turner said, is that Jorgensen no longer thinks of inconveniences as “sacrifices.” Now they’re just part of the investments she makes in order to get the return she wants. The rigors of travel? Part of the investment. Living overseas nine months a year? Also an investment.

Third, is 100 percent commitment. As Jorgensen put it, “I’m fully investing every single hour of every single day into this sport.” 

But here’s the twist: there is no twist.

All that commitment and investment “is just her ability to show up every day and do what’s required,” Lemieux said. “It’s really nothing special. Neither of us is doing anything extraordinary. We’re just trying to do 100 percent ordinary, every single day.”

gwen in chicago