Gwen Jorgensen's triathlon career started with a phone call.
Barb Lindquist, the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Coordinator, was looking for promising single-sport athletes to join her development program, an initiative to grow the U.S.'s potential for future Olympians. As both a swimmer and runner at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jorgensen doubly fit the bill.
At first, Jorgensen was hesitant about talking to Lindquist. She wanted nothing to do with triathlon and didn't really know much about it (she actually thought joining the program would mean she had to do an Ironman). Plus, with a full-time job as a CPA at Ernst and Young, making the leap to start a new career out of an unknown sport sounded like a risky decision.
But Lindquist stayed in contact and ultimately gave Jorgensen an offer she couldn't refuse: Join the program and USAT would take care of everything, from providing a coach to finding a bike, and if she didn't fall in love with the sport, she could leave at any time. Jorgensen decided to give it a shot, and within four months she was hooked.
Success came quickly. In her first triathlon, the 2010 USAT Elite Development race, Jorgensen came in second as an amateur and earned her elite card. That prompted her to scale back to part-time at Ernst and Young. Throughout 2011, she took multiple top-10 finishes on the ITU circuit, often posting the fastest run splits. The highlight of her year was a second-place finish at the ITU World Championship Series race in London, where she earned one of three spots on the 2012 Olympic team. Her ticket to London was the final affirmation she needed to quit her job and focus solely on triathlon.
Her Olympic debut in London didn't go quite as planned after a mechanical issue on the bike took her out of medal contention, but Jorgensen has thrived in the post-Olympic wake. Last October, she took second at the 2012 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Auckland, New Zealand, with an impressive 34:10 10K, and this year she already has two big WTS wins to her name (her April victory at ITU WTS San Diego was the first win by an American in the series). The 27-year-old is currently ranked No. 1 on the circuit.
"I am so grateful and thankful for Barb and USAT," Jorgensen said. "They acknowledged that I needed to get into triathlon at my own speed, and that approach allowed me the success I have right now."
The journey to triple-threat status
Jorgensen will be the first to tell you that she's a gifted runner (she holds a 5K PR of 15:52). In high school, she showed up to "maybe one track workout per week" -- she was busy swimming twice a day and practicing the violin -- and would still pull off podium performances at state track competitions.
"I enjoyed running, but my passion at the time was swimming," Jorgensen said.
As a child in her hometown of Waukesha, Wis., Jorgensen would spend hours swimming in her grandmother's pool every summer. She says she still loves everything about water: "I love to drink it, I love to swim, I love the ocean. There is something peaceful and refreshing about swimming that I love."
But much to her dismay, swimming did not come quite as naturally as running in high school.
"I would beg my coach to come to more workouts, to do more meters. I wanted to be the best, but I was barely making it to our state qualifying meets." Said Jorgensen, whose parents would schlep her to 5 a.m. practices and meets all around the country. "My parents have supported me since I was eight years old -- they'd sit in the stands and be there all day long because I thought I had to warm down for an hour after a race, for some reason. They'd say, 'Come on Gwen, you're the last one in the pool.' I couldn't have done any of this without them."
Her love for the water and dedication to the pool was enough to earn her a walk-on spot on the Wisconsin swim team.
"I was one of the worst on the team, but still loved swimming and loved to push myself to my limits daily," said Jorgensen, who continued to run for the track and field and cross country teams before graduating and joining the USAT Collegiate Recruitment Program.
Before she could reach full-blown triathlete status, Jorgensen had to overcome her biggest barrier to entry: riding a bike. Just three years ago, she'd never been on a road bike.
"I was scared to use clipless pedals," Jorgensen admitted. "I was falling over at every stoplight. I think at least once a week I'd notice a new scratch on this bike that only had about 100 miles on it!"
Her first triathlon coach, Cindi Bannink, asked that she train on rollers (it was winter in Wisconsin), which terrified her.
"I set the rollers up between two walls in a narrow hallway where I don't think it was even possible to fall, and yet I was scared," Jorgensen said. "I forced my roommate at the time to hold me up, and it was just pathetic."
Gradually, with help from coaches Bannink and Tom Schuler and boyfriend Pat Lemieux, Jorgensen improved her riding skills and finally feels comfortable calling herself a cyclist.
"I have no fear of riding in packs, can ride rollers no problem, and am no longer tipping over at stoplights," Jorgensen said. "That's not to say I'm a great cyclist. I still have a lot of room for improvement!"
Jorgensen's drive to improve has always been present, but it was certainly intensified after a disappointing Olympics.
"I think no matter what, after a race like the Olympics, anyone is going to have a lull, a big sigh -- I don't know how else to describe it," Jorgensen said. "Everyone who was at the Olympics was putting everything into that one race. You invest a lot of time and you do a lot of things you would or wouldn't do if you weren't going to the Olympics. You have a lot of people supporting you and you're asking a lot of other people. And then that day comes and whether you had the best result or a result you're not happy with, I think it's a lot mentally. Once the Olympics was over, it's like OK, that thing I've been focusing on for a year is done with and now what?"
She turned her "now what?" into an opportunity to make some changes, starting with challenging herself more in training. Late last year, Jorgensen switched from working solo under Wisconsin-based Bannink to joining coach Jamie Turner's 10-person international squad. She and her boyfriend first moved to Wollongong, Australia, in January for a few months, and they now reside in Vitoria, Spain, so Jorgensen can train with Turner and his group full-time.
"I needed to change something, and thought this would get me to the next step -- to have someone one-on-one at every workout to see what I'm doing wrong, and to have training partners to push me," Jorgensen said.
The group, comprised of mostly U-23 ITU athletes, challenges Jorgensen on a daily basis -- an environment that Turner says was necessary for her to improve.
"You've got cases of some outstanding performances from athletes who work more in isolation," Turner said. "Or you have an athlete like Gwen who will progress faster in an environment where she's exposed to her peers ... I like my athletes rubbing shoulders with their opposition.
"Early success, instant gratification on a little bit of work -- those things are hard to deal with. Hard work only beats talent that doesn't work hard. Gwen was probably a talent that wasn't working to her capacity. Now Gwen knows that she has to be talent to work hard to win."
Turner has put an emphasis on technique and racing with a focus on the processes and not the result.
"Before I was just going through the motions in everything," Jorgensen said. "Now when I'm swimming and biking I'm always thinking about something I can improve upon."
Jorgensen shows a true laser focus on her major personal goal of Rio in 2016. Given how far the determined retired accountant has come in a matter of three years, her future in the sport looks promising.