The world of tri has watched, admired and marvelled at American Gwen Jorgensen’s complete and total destruction of the WTS women’s circuit over the last few years. Mouths agape, time and again we’ve seen her devour the tarmac to claw back seemingly insurmountable time deficits post-T2.
Her running style has been described as near-perfect by some of the top coaches in the sport. Darren Smith, coach to Olympic silver medallist Lisa Norden and Commonwealth gold medallist Jodie Stimpson, told 220: “Jorgensen’s just killing everyone, isn’t she? If you look at her, everything’s straight.”
But where has this long-limbed leopard come from? How does one go from accountant, specialising in corporation tax, to the most successful female Olympic-distance triathlete to have ever graced the ITU’s distinctive blue carpet?
Older sister Elizabeth may well be the answer. Herself a keen track and field athlete in high school, Liz’s coach, Eric Lehmann, approached her one day to demand “You have to get your sister to start running”. Gwen, however, was in love with swimming, refusing to miss a day in the pool for any other sport.
Lehmann, clearly unperturbed and aware of the potential talent in his midst, said he would be flexible, allowing her to swim around two run sessions a week. Success on two feet came swiftly, even though the hours devoted to running were significantly less than those swimming.
Moving to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to study general accountancy (“not knowing what I wanted to study, but I just found this very interesting”) in 2004, Lehmann continued to encourage her, convincing her to try for the college team – “I just thought he was nuts,” admits Gwen now. “But he called up the coach, Jim Stintzi and I was on the team later that year. And then I did a time-trial and qualified for the NCAA’s [National Collegiate Athletic Association], so it was crazy.”
Multisport fortune would come a-knockin’ in 2009 in the shape of former American pro triathlete Barb Lindquist, who had started working for (America’s equivalent of the BTF) USA Triathlon to identify, recruit and ultimately mentor talent from college swimming and track teams for their Olympic programme.
“Barb was the reason I started doing triathlon,” says Gwen, who by now was on a one-year Masters programme. “She came to me as part of that programme and asked me if I would try a triathlon. At the time I had a full-time job lined up at Ernst & Young, so it was kind of a hard decision. She told me to just give it a shot and see if I liked it. She said I could work full time and do tri.”
Qualifying for the London Olympics one year later, she became the programme’s first success story. After making the team, she took a leave of absence from her job, a position that she still technically holds: “I could go back! That’s always nice to know when your athletic career may one day be over.”
But could she honestly see herself going back to a desk job? “I really did enjoy my work with Ernst & Young, I enjoyed what I was doing, but I can’t complain about my job now. I mean I love being outside and getting to do what I love every day.”
School of wizardry
Despite the fanfare leading up to the 2012 Games, Gwen’s race in London was effectively ruined by a flat tyre, leaving her trailing in 38th place as her teammate Sara Groff took fourth. But before the Olympics, Gwen had approached Triathlon Canada’s national high-performance coach, Jamie Turner, a Kiwi, drawn by the idea of working in a dedicated triathlon team. In October of that year, she joined his squad, the Wollongong Wizards, whose Twitter biog reads: “Illawarra-based Triathlon School of Wizardry. We make magic happen.”
“It’s been phenomenal,” says Gwen of the set-up. “I knew that in order for me to become more successful and become the best athlete, I needed to join this type of group. And Jamie was incredible, the way he has this group set up, everyone is encouraging, everyone is happy and truly happy for other athletes when they do well. I wouldn’t have this success without the Wollongong Wizards and Jamie, they have really helped me and pushed me every day.”
While Gwen’s results pre-Games were solid, including a second place behind Helen Jenkins at the 2011 London WTS race, post Wollongong Wizard-enrollment her success on the ITU course has been relentless, with 11 top-five World Tri Series finishes out of 17 starts. And of those 11, eight were wins.
When Gwen first started working with Jamie, the focus was inevitably on building up her swim and bike strength – which, ironically, while still not nearly as strong as her run strength, have both resulted in an even stronger run. “The stronger we get on the swim and the bike, the better my run is. I’m not as fatigued going into it and I have more strength. We worked on glute strength a lot with my running, which is important as well as core work.”
“We’re seeing Gwen running faster because she’s now more economical and efficient on the swim and the bike,” says Turner. “So we will continue to see Gwen run faster as she improves in the swim and the bike.”
But what exactly makes Gwen’s run so good? In short, everything. Turner highlights the following elements:
“Her mechanics are good, her stride length, her ability to hold her form under stress is good, she is good at extracting the most out of herself in the run and she thrives and enjoys the challenge of running fast. It’s something she really prides herself on. Physiologically her numbers are good too.”
“A lot of it has to do with genetics,” says Gwen. “When I was growing up I did everything I could to be successful at swimming. However, I wasn’t world class. I still have to work extremely hard at swimming, whereas running comes more naturally. I’m also consistent in my running – running about 50–60km a week.”
Finding the balance
Often compared to another of the great triathlon runners, Emma Snowsill (who also helps mentor a number of the Wollongong Wizards), Jorgensen has divided opinion as to whether she can ever be truly classed as a great triathlete when she relies so heavily on one discipline to win races.
“I look at my competitors and at the men on the circuit and I see those who are dominant on the swim, bike and run – the Brownlees, Javier Gomez – and that’s what I want to be,” she admits.
“And the thing I love about ITU racing is that every race is different,” she continues. “Sometimes swim/bikers get away. Sometimes everyone is together coming into the run. You have to be able to swim with the best, bike with the best, and run away from the best to win. I’m still trying to balance all three.
“I treat the swim like a swim race, bike like a bike race and running like a run race. The cycling is not a 40k TT like in non-drafting. The accelerations and power output on the bike are difficult and can really affect the run off the bike. You need to be able to accelerate and surge throughout the race. It’s a lot of sprinting and recovering.”
Investing for the future
“There are improvements every day to aim towards in terms of stability and strength,” says Turner on Gwen’s training focus leading into a new season. “When you take up the sport late like Gwen did you miss all of those junior opportunities. Gwen came in as a 24-year-old accountant, remember, not a triathlete. So the challenge is to keep investing in the process. Yes, she has a gift, certainly genetically as well, but she works just as hard as everybody else.”
Jorgensen said: “The Olympics are the biggest one-day race in our sport and crazy things can and will happen. Triathlon is unique in that there are so many variables: there can be a swim/bike breakaway, a mechanical on the bike, the race may all come together. The challenge of the sport is also its beauty.”
(Images: Laughing Dog / Delly Carr)