Triathlete Gwen Jorgensen: From reluctant to jubilant

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2012 - 11:50 PM

Gwen Jorgensen had to be bribed to get on her bike when she was young. Now she'll be pedaling as part of the Olympic triathlon.

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LONDON -- Most of her friends thought she should seize what seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Gwen Jorgensen wasn't so sure. She liked her job as a tax accountant in Milwaukee, and she had never been particularly interested in trying a triathlon.

Barb Lindquist, however, is a persistent woman. Lindquist, director of college recruiting for USA Triathlon, had seen Jorgensen compete in swimming and track at the University of Wisconsin and saw the makings of an elite triathlete. "I wasn't interested in it at the time, because I didn't think I'd like it,'' Jorgensen said. "I was hesitant. But after talking to Barb, I figured I had nothing to lose.''

Instead, she gained something entirely unexpected: a place in the London Olympics. Jorgensen, who splits her time between St. Paul, Milwaukee and Clermont, Fla., finished her first triathlon in March 2010. Seventeen months later, she qualified for the Games when she finished second in an event on London's Hyde Park Olympic course.

On Saturday, Jorgensen will swim 1,500 meters in the Serpentine, ride her bike 43 kilometers past Buckingham Palace and other landmarks and finish with a 10,000-meter run around the park. She prepared for the Olympics by winning a World Cup event in Spain on June 17, then returned to the Twin Cities to finish second in the Life Time Fitness triathlon on July 14.

When Jorgensen is in St. Paul, she trains on the bike with boyfriend Pat Lemieux, a professional cyclist. She also works out with the Gophers swim team, takes an occasional swim at St. Paul's Highland Park Aquatic Center and runs and bikes around the lakes.

She is part of a powerful U.S. team that could reach the medal stand in London. All three Olympians finished in the top 11 in the ITU World Triathlon Series rankings in 2011, with Jorgensen 11th, Sarah Groff third and Laura Bennett eighth.

"I gave it a shot, and I fell in love,''' said Jorgensen, 26. "It's overwhelming and exciting and a huge blessing to be in the situation I'm in. At the same time, it's a huge learning curve. I've been able to do this because of all the support I have and all the people guiding me along the way."

When she was growing up in Milwaukee, Jorgensen hated biking. She had to be bribed with ice cream just to go on a ride with her family. That left her with no interest in triathlon, even though she was developing into a fine swimmer and runner.

At Wisconsin, Jorgensen was on the track, cross-country and swim teams for three seasons before dropping swimming in her final year. She was an All-America in both cross country and track, winning Big Ten titles in 2009 in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters.

Upon graduation, she took a job at the accounting firm Ernst and Young. Lindquist helped persuade her to try triathlon by assuring her she could continue to work while training and competing. She earned elite status in her first race with an eighth-place finish and immediately decided she wanted to pursue it more seriously.

"She's really kind of a freak with it,'' said Lindquist, who scours college swimming and track programs for athletes that USA Triathlon can develop. "She swam at a D-I level, and her run is one of the best in our sport. That's why she's been able to come in and be super competitive at a high level.''

The USA Triathlon rookie of the year in 2010, Jorgensen stormed up the rankings in 2011, highlighted by the London race that won her the Olympic spot. She has finished in the top eight in 21 of 26 career ITU events, making the podium in nine of those.

Jorgensen worked full-time early in her triathlon career. Her company allowed her to scale back as she became more successful, and she began a leave of absence early this year to prepare for the Olympics. Her co-workers are enjoying the ride, decorating her desk with Olympic paraphernalia when she qualified for the Games.

After the Olympics, Jorgensen plans to return to her accounting job. She also will continue competing, knowing she has nothing to lose and even more to gain.

"I'm still learning,'' she said. "I have a lot of things to work on and a lot of great people helping me. I'm fortunate I get to do what I love every day. I feel like the luckiest person in the world.''

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