Approaching Vitoria Gasteiz in the Basque country, two things strike you. The first is a huge sign with the words ‘Green Capital’; the second is the sign’s backdrop – never-ending high-rise apartments and retail outlets. The paradoxes continue as we drive through this historic city and to an industrial hinterland where one of the world’s greatest collections of triathletes, the Wollongong Wizards and their taliswoman Gwen Jorgensen, live, sleep, eat and train. In Lanzarote you have La Santa, in Fuerteventura there’s Playitas… in contrast, before us is a settlement that resembles Butlins circa 1985. No training pool, no gym, no track – so this is the favourite for gold’s training nirvana?
“It was built as a retirement village,” explains Gwen’s coach and Kiwi Jamie Turner. “Then the financial crash hit. The elderly couldn’t sell their homes so this place remained empty for years. Developers turned it into apartments with short- and long-term residence.”
It’s an incongruous backdrop for a group of athletes of this calibre but, as Turner says, this isn’t a camp – this is their home, with many spending upwards of four months here each year. Fifteen elites, paired in rooms apart from Gwen who ‘rooms’ with husband Pat Lemieux, populate the complex including at least five athletes who’ll line up in the men’s and women’s races in Rio on 18 and 20 August, respectively.
Many are Australian as Turner has a contract with Triathlon Australia. There’s Aaron Royle, who finished third behind the Brownlees in Leeds, and fellow Aussie Ryan Bailie, who secured his spot in Rio with fourth in the Gold Coast World Tri Series event earlier this year. Despite the contract, Turner remains freelance, meaning he not only coaches the Aussies but American Jorgensen, Chilean dynamo Barbara Riveros and Canada’s Amélie Kretz, who should race Rio thanks to a career-best WTS finish of eighth in Yokohama. “He’s the conductor,” Jorgensen later labels Turner.
EVERY SESSION HAS A FOCUS
It’s 3:30pm and the athletes assemble outside the complex, three hire vans ready to transport them to Ullibarri Gamboa lake for the late-afternoon run session. Bursts of laughter from Canada’s Alexis Lepage and Bailie curtail the complex’s siesta and coincides with the arrival of Jorgensen.
The 30-year-old American’s dominance of the women’s scene, which has seen 17 WTS victories since her first in San Diego in 2013, is heightened by her 178cm frame. In person, hands on hips, sunglasses on, minimal shorts, maximal socks and endless legs, her presence seems even greater. There’s little wasted energy with Jorgensen and, like the other Wizards, she’s soon heading out for the day’s third workout.
After 20mins, the buses pull up beside the lake and its Green Capital moniker becomes clear. The fecund backdrop is reminiscent of England, which is hardly surprising as the Basque region is renowned for its intemperate winters, with the rains deriving from the mountains that pierce the horizon.
“This is where we do most of our fast running,” explains Turner. “For someone like Gwen, this surface is optimal. It’s gravelly so less impact, though we’ll do some harder-surface stuff as you need to experience race-day conditions so you’re prepared.”
The group begins with a self-prescribed warm-up – a key thread of the visit is Turner’s ethos of giving athletes ownership (no dictatorship here) – which includes individual drills. Turner talks about the four pillars of performance: technical, tactical, physiological and psychological. “Drills are an example of the technical, which often ties in with the mental. Look at Charlotte [McShane, Australia’s former ITU U23 world champ]. She has some cues like gluteal control and where her arms need to be at certain paces. This tactical is mental, too. You need that to perform under the pressure of fatigue and competition.”
Jorgensen later lets us into her world and gives a glimpse of why ‘detail’ and ‘investing not sacrifice’ are common descriptors of the favourite for women’s gold. “Earlier this year we had sprint coach Paul Hallam come in and he taught us a load of drills,” she says. “We incorporate some of that stuff into the sessions’ warm-ups so we’re ready to go.”
Turner also brought in Hallam to increase the athletes’ racing vocabulary. Sprinting’s not necessarily an accelerated version of race-pace technique. Arm movements differ, stride rate changes… engaging minds, pursuing the detail, all leads to peak performance.
A few of the group, including Grace Musgrove and McShane, are racing the German Bundesliga in a few days’ time. It’s why these athletes are running at 10km pace while Jorgensen and Royle, who are training through to Leeds just a week-and-a-half later, are running at 5km pace over a set of 5 x 1km with 800m jog recovery in-between. The men, many now topless, lead with Jorgensen clinging onto what would’ve been their shirt-tails. World-class elites like Riveros and Kretz are further back.
“The men are running 2:50mins per km, while Gwen will be around 2:58km,” says Turner. “In elite tri, the gold standard is if the girls can run around 3mins within the boys over 10km. That’s 18secs per kilometre. Gwen prides herself on running within 3mins of guys like Ali and Jonny.”
In Leeds, Alistair and Jonny Brownlee took first and second after respective 10km runs of 31:10 and 31:44mins. Jorgensen scored victory 51secs ahead of second-placed Flora Duffy thanks to a 33:29min run – over a minute ahead of the next fastest runner, Riveros, and only 1:45min slower than Jonny Brownlee’s effort.
Jorgensen’s winning margin in Leeds was emphatic. But it was a victory less dominant that Turner says illustrates the secret that lies behind all those trophies. “Gwen’s best race wasn’t about how much she won by – it’s when she has to cope with the most amount of obstacles. That was Hyde Park in 2015. She had the flu and had to challenge herself to control and execute her skillset with extreme stress. Could she do it? There was mucus and slobber everywhere but, well, she really delivered…”
Turner cuts off to direct his disciples, calmly shouting instruction to athletes of the calibre of top Xterra racer Ben Allen. “…and she’s professional,” Turner says, returning to Gwen’s London triumph. “Like all the athletes here, each race presents a chance to earn money.”
DEVIL IN THE DETAIL
Back at base, that professional moniker is echoed by many of Jorgensen’s contemporaries including Kretz, Tamsyn Moana-Veale and McShane. They know Gwen’s success isn’t a matter of turn up and race. “People say it’s easy for Gwen to run like that but you should see how hard she works in training,” says Australian athlete Moana-Veale, uploading her day’s efforts to TrainingPeaks while housemate Kretz cooks chicken breast, a portion of white rice that’d struggle to satiate a mouse and a bowl of salad. “We all work hard but she really nails things like recovery and nutrition, and she has Pat…”
Jorgensen married Pat in October of 2014. A quality cyclist in his own right, he put his own career on hold to ‘invest’ in Gwen’s. He’s her confidant, administrator and chef. While other members of Turner’s squad squeeze in shopping at Aldi and half-heartedly cook meals in fatigued states, Pat cycles to the shops and prepares meals while Jorgensen trains.
“I hear Pat cooks?” I ask Gwen the next day. “He does everything,” she laughs. So precise is Pat and Jorgensen’s preparation that they even shipped Michelin-star chef and top age-group duathlete Alan Murchison over from the UK. Nothing is left to chance. “It was great to have Alan over,” says Jorgensen. “He taught us simple things like what pans to choose or how to pick the best meat and fish…”
“It’s all in the eyes,” Turner interjects. “Not around the eyes, not over the eyes, not beneath the eyes, it’s all in the eyes.” Turner’s a necessary comedic safety valve in Jorgensen’s set-up, always ready to diffuse the self-imposed tension of dedication, though I can’t tell if he’s talking about choosing the fish or locating the secret to Jorgensen’s speed. Do her steely eyes portray super-human determination? I don’t know as her sunglasses simply reflect – or deflect – my inquiry.
Murchison is touted as coming back again for all the athletes pre-Rio. Jorgensen’s noted for her love of food and has dark chocolate after every meal – a subject I pursue but am guided to a blog on Gwen’s site. ‘A day at the table with Gwen’ offers recipes that are above and beyond pasta, pasta, pasta. Gwen/Pat’s recipe book includes oats with eggs for breakfast; lamb and beef curry for lunch (“Gwen has a big lunch,” Moana-Veale tells me. “I can’t or I wouldn’t be able to train in the afternoon”); a dinner of salad without lettuce; and snacks including rice cakes with peanut butter and a couple of cakes.
SLEEP TO VICTORY
Another subject close to Jorgensen and the Wizards’ hearts is sleep. After at least two morning sessions – apart from Sunday, which is nearly a day off (just one long run in the morning) – and lunch, they all have a nap. Ryan Bailie tells us it’s of performance benefit and “good to live the Spanish lifestyle.” For most, the nap and evening sleep are uploaded to TrainingPeaks where Turner can monitor trends or anything that might affect subsequent quality of sessions. For Jorgensen, shuteye is more high-tech. “I have a Sleep IQ bed from Sleep Number,” she says. “It’s loaded with sensors that track length and quality of sleep, breathing rate, heart rate… I never set a morning alarm for training, either.”
So important is sleep to the Wollongongs that every athlete will strap on a sleep wrist monitor when training at altitude. Efficiency of recovery’s also in the capable hands of physiotherapist Dean Sullivan. Dean’s employed by Triathlon Australia but other federations’ athletes can use his services for a fee to Triathlon Australia, and from what we observed they’re in capable hands. Each morning, Sullivan morphs the athletes’ backyards into a gym filled with Swiss balls, TRX trainers and mats.
Consistency of training has certainly been a key theme in Jorgensen’s training the past few years, unlike someone like Helen Jenkins who’s suffered with lower-limb injuries for years. It’s a subject later picked up on by Bailie at a physio session. “An elite’s biggest worry before a race is illness,” he says, through gritted teeth as Sullivan digs deep. “And that often happens when you taper. Now I just think it’s good luck if I line up with a runny nose and cough!”
MAIN OBSTACLE? ILLNESS…
Turner says there are a million philosophies to tapering, but fundamentally his Olympians will reduce volume but maintain intensity as Rio looms. After Jorgensen’s display in Leeds, many suggest only illness or injury will prevent her from becoming America’s first Olympic triathlon champion on 20 August 2016.
“I head to Rio on 15 August,” says Jorgensen. “It’s Bilbao to Madrid and then over to Brazil. We leave here at around 8:30am and arrive at 5:30pm. It’s a big day of travelling.” There’ll be recovery from travel and then some sharpening sessions before the big day. Then Jorgensen and her fellow Wollongongs will follow a logistical template they put in place at the 2015 Rio Test Event, which Jorgensen won. As for the Zika virus, “athletes are in constant contact with their Olympic committees,” says Turner.
Beyond the run and gym sessions, 220 observed Jorgensen and the Wizards’ motorpace behind conductor Turner’s scooter and attend swim sessions at the superb Vitoria-Gasteiz facility that included indoor and outdoor 50m pools plus athletics track. What resonated loudly was that when they trained hard, it was eyes-out; when easy, it really was easy.
Turner’s door remained open for athletes throughout. And, while other members mingled, Jorgensen focussed on the job at hand. The words ‘superfluous’, ‘chatter’ and ‘spontaneous’ are seemingly absent in Jorgensen’s dictionary. Jorgensen, like all the athletes here, uses the set-up to learn, focus on peak performance and sharpen their competitive instinct.
As we head to the final run session before returning to the UK, Jorgensen sums up what’s required to stride to gold – paradoxically, of course. “Ultimately, we’re a group of individuals who train together and all have the common goal of improving at the highest level. We don’t need to be the best of friends to achieve what we want to achieve.”