Gwen Jorgensen was enjoying the best race of her life. Her swim and bike legs finished, she was running light and fast and strong. She trailed only one competitor, Great Britain's Helen Jenkins.
With the fourth and final lap to go, it never crossed her mind that she was about to make history. Seventeen months ago, she was a full-time accountant. Now this.
Minutes after crossing the finish line in second place, Jorgensen remembered all the details, except the most important one: She had just won a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
"I remember turning around and watching the other girls, I remember [U.S. teammate] Sarah Groff coming in and I remember her crossing the finish line and going up to her and saying, 'Congratulations, you're on our Olympic team!'" Jorgensen said.
"Going into the race, I knew the qualifications. I knew if I was top-nine or the first or second American, I would qualify, but during the race it never actually crossed my mind. I think I got into such a good zone, I was just racing."
That race in London was six months ago. A bigger race in London looms just five months away. When the women's Olympic triathlon is held on the same course on Aug. 4, Jorgensen, 25, can only hope for a repeat performance.
"Honestly, it's still kind of a shock for me when I wake up in the morning," she said. "It feels surreal for me. It's something that keeps me motivated, though, and focused, which is amazing. It's just a really good blessing to have this upcoming year."
Catching on quickly
As a triathlon latecomer, Jorgensen is racing against time. Typically, a triathlete needs at least four years of intense, high-level training and racing to ascend to the world elite. It took Jorgensen less than a year and a half.
"Her story is definitely very unique as far as how quickly she got into the sport," said Barb Lindquist, a retired 2004 Olympian who, through USA Triathlon's Collegiate Recruitment Program, convinced Jorgensen that accounting could wait.
Jorgensen, from Milwaukee, has a history of catching on quickly. A walk-on swimmer at the University of Wisconsin, she swam for three years before moving full-time to running, where her natural talent blossomed. She swiftly became an All-American in track and cross country, winning Big Ten championships at 5,000 and 3,000 meters during her senior year. She graduated in May 2009.
By then, she had caught the eye of Lindquist, who had emailed her and gotten a "no" in return.
"When I thought of triathlon, I thought of Ironman," Jorgensen said of the grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run.
The Olympic distances are much shorter: a .93- mile swim, 24.8-mile bike and 6.2-mile run.
Still, Jorgensen had been hired by the prestigious accounting firm Ernst & Young and was excited about her career.
"I do tax work," she said. "It's very much like law. You read tax code and interpret the law and apply it. It's almost like a little puzzle."
As Jorgensen went to work, so did Lindquist. While promising results in triathlon piled up, Jorgensen's full-time hours at Ernst & Young shrank -- with the blessing of her boss and mentor, Mark Hellmer, himself a recreational triathlete. After two years with the company, Jorgensen took an extended leave of absence in late 2011. Hellmer said a position will be waiting when she decides to return.
"She's a very hard worker, she's very smart," he said. "She's your classic overachiever, no two ways about it. The thing that amazes me most is she might be one of the most humble people. She couldn't say enough thank-yous."
Jorgensen's drive showed early as she displayed self-discipline and hard work in the pool and with her studies, said older sister Liz, 29.
Their mom, Nancy, a Wisconsin high school choir teacher, and dad, Joel, who works for sink and countertop manufacturer InPro, didn't dream Jorgensen would become a triathlete.
"Especially in Wisconsin, you don't grow up doing triathlons or even hearing about triathlon," Liz said. "Like my dad, you do it as a bucket-list thing.
"With her body type, her drive, it's a sport that fits her."
Jorgensen has had to learn to juggle the endurance requirements and technical demands of three sports and devise race strategies for each.
She had virtually no cycling experience when she started. She didn't even own a road bike. Cycling coach Tom Schuler took her to ride in the empty parking lot at Miller Park when the Milwaukee Brewers were out of town. There, she would practice cornering, cycling with others close by and "hotdog drills" -- 180-degree turns in a tight oval. Sometimes they would ride on the grass, working on balance by holding hands and gradually accelerating around sharp corners.
She has come a long way since then, when "I was still falling over at stop signs," she said.
Now she's renting a room in Florida, living and training with other national team members at the home of Sara McLarty, a former Olympic-distance triathlete who is now coaching. Jorgensen communicates daily by phone or computer with her coach, Cindi Bannink. They have worked together since December 2009.
Jorgensen typically trains 20 to 25 hours a week, up from the 13 or 14 she squeezed in while working more than 40 hours a week at Ernst & Young.
"It's an incredible opportunity," she said. "It reminds me and makes me realize I have a lot of work to do.
"I'm excited. I know I have a lot of improvement I can make. I'm excited to learn from other triathletes."
Headed to the podium?
Among those Jorgensen beat at London were U.S. teammates Groff, a national-team veteran who also qualified for the Olympic team there, and three-time national champion Laura Bennett, fourth in the 2008 Olympics. Jorgensen's silver medal was the best finish by an American woman in the ITU World Championship Series.
Partly because of that finish, the U.S. women qualified the maximum three starting spots for the Games. The third and final spot will be determined in May in San Diego, when Bennett and Sarah Haskins are expected to duke it out.
The lone U.S. Olympic triathlon medal came in 2004, when Susan Williams won bronze. There is more depth now: Groff, Bennett and Jorgensen finished the 2011 season with world rankings of 3, 8 and 11, respectively. Entering the Olympic season, no other nation has three athletes in the world's top 11.
How good of a triathlete can Jorgensen be, given her late start?
"I think it's a pretty high possibility [for her] to be on the podium," McLarty said.
Jorgensen's remarkable ride continues, a triathlon cram session with London 2012 as the final exam.
"I feel like she's on a super-steep learning curve," Bannink said. "The exciting thing is she hasn't reached a plateau by any means."