With a swift finishing kick down the home stretch of the triathlon course along Copacabana Beach at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Waukesha native Gwen Jorgensen gradually pulled away from her nearest competitors.
As she pushed toward the finish line, Jorgensen flipped her sunglasses to the top of her head and glanced over her shoulder. With no opponents in sight, a smile briefly crossed her face before the enormity of the moment began to set in. Jorgensen raised her hand to her mouth and began to weep as she broke the finish line tape, overcome with emotion as she reached the pinnacle of her sport, becoming the first American triathlete to win an Olympic gold medal.
Jorgensen’s attention-grabbing performance became a highlight for U.S. athletes at the Rio Games and capped her career as a triathlete. It also erased the crushing disappointment of the London Olympics four years earlier when a flat tire in the cycling portion of the event ruined her performance.
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A year after Rio, Jorgensen gave birth to a son, Stanley, and then stunned many when she announced late in 2017 that she would retire from triathlon competition and switch to the marathon.
Jorgensen set her sights on recapturing Olympic glory in the marathon at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. But after battling injuries and having surgery on a troublesome heel, Jorgensen passed up the Olympic Trials marathon in February and opted to try to make the U.S. Olympic track and field team.
Then everything came to a screeching halt as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the country, forcing a postponement of the Tokyo Games, at least until next summer.
“I was ready to go. I felt like I was the fittest I’ve ever been in June, which is when the track and field trials were supposed to be,” Jorgensen said in a phone interview from her home in Portland, Oregon. “But I’m actually excited for the extra year because I feel like I can build upon this for next year. I switched sports from triathlon to running and then I had a kid and then I got injured. So, the extra year is kind of a benefit for me.”
Jorgensen admitted that the coronavirus outbreak initially disrupted her training routine.
“As a professional athlete, we like to control things, but we also know that things constantly change,” she said. “I execute on what I can. The uncontrollable I just accept. I’ve tried to continue to train like this is a normal year.”
Jorgensen has been training with the renowned Bowerman Track Club in Portland under the watchful eye of coach Jerry Schumacher, former cross country and track coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of formal races, but Jorgensen has been taking part in intrasquad competitions.
“I’ve been thrilled. This month we’ve been able to do three or four races, just our teammates against each other,” Jorgensen explained.
Jorgensen is likely to try to make the 2021 Olympic team in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon, next June.
“I actually preferred the marathon, but I think I’m thriving in this track training right now,” Jorgensen said. “I’ve never reached my potential in running. The appeal is finding my limit and how good I can be. That’s really motivating.”
A return to marathoning is likely for Jorgensen at some point, but for now her focus is squarely on the track.
Jorgensen’s busy training schedule and travel challenges stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak have hindered her ability to return to the Milwaukee area to visit her family.
“I don’t make it back as often as I’d like,” she said. “I’d like to make it back this year when I have some off time, but with COVID I just don’t think it’s safe to travel.”
Her mother, Nancy, and sister, Elizabeth, recently co-authored a book Go, Gwen, Go: A Midwest Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold, which she described as a family memoir. The book details Jorgensen’s odyssey, fueled by desire and discipline, from modest athletic achievement to Olympic gold medalist.
“It just kind of tells my story. I love it,” Jorgensen said.
She treasures memories of her childhood in Waukesha and remembers how daily swims at her grandmother’s pool helped set her on a path early in life toward becoming a triathlete.
“That’s actually how I got started swimming. My parents noticed that I enjoyed the water so much,” she said.
Jorgensen credits long-time Waukesha South High School track and field coach Eric Lehmann for nurturing her running ability.
“My sister was on the track team and he said I think Gwen would be good, get her to come out,” Jorgensen said. “So, I went out for track.”
Lehmann also helped Jorgensen continue her post-high school running career when he reached out to a track coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and urged him to consider having Jorgensen join the team. The coach agreed to allow Jorgensen to take part in a time trial, which led to her landing a spot on the squad.
“I wouldn’t be running today without him because I wouldn’t have run in college,” Jorgensen said of Lehmann.
Lehmann confessed that he didn’t see “a gold medal pedigree” in Jorgensen.
Her commitment and attention to detail is what most impressed him.
“Did her talent stand out? No,” Lehmann explained. “Did the work ethic stand out? Absolutely.”
Lehmann passed up a chance to travel to Brazil for Jorgensen’s Olympic race, something he now regrets, but watched it on television with his family in the basement of their home.
“I held it together until she broke down,” Lehmann said. “To me, it just wasn’t real. Until she cried, then it was darn, she did it. I literally know someone who won a gold medal.”
Lehmann, who has been coaching track and cross country at Waukesha South for more than 25 years, supports Jorgensen’s move to the track.
“It’s about time,” he joked. “We all thought she’d take one more crack at the tri, but I think the 10,000 meters is a nice sweet spot for her, knowing her drive and the balance between endurance and speed work.”
It’s been four years since Jorgensen captured gold in Rio. She thinks about the moment from time to time but isn’t the type to rest on her laurels.
“It’s definitely something that gave me a lot of confidence as an athlete,” Jorgensen said. “Leading up to that moment there had been lot of ups and downs. People could look at my career and say it was easy or that I won all these races but they don’t remember all the races I didn’t win or when I was struggling and wanted to quit or felt like I was moving backwards.”
Although Jorgensen is finding her rhythm with her track training regimen, it has taken her a while to adjust to daily life in a pandemic.
“I think the beginning of COVID was the hardest,” she said. “I’m very into routines and I like everything being planned out. Then, everything changed overnight. I finally have this good routine being at home now. I get to spend more time with my son, and I do gym workouts at home and he’s learning about exercising.”
Jorgensen is grateful that her family has stayed healthy during the COVID-19 crisis.
“My parents and my husband’s parents are at a little bit higher risk, so they’ve been taking it more cautious, which I appreciate,” she said. “But it’s really sad. They used to fly out and we’d get to see them and that’s just not able to happen now.”
Ongoing concerns about the coronavirus have also affected Jorgensen’s sponsor deals, which are often the financial lifeblood for professional athletes.
“There have been some sponsors that wanted to put holds on my contracts, but it’s totally understandable,” she said. “These are hard times for everyone.”
It has all put matters into perspective, Jorgensen said.
“We’re doing the best we can and we’re so appreciative of what we have,” she said. “In the whole scheme of things, I feel really blessed that I’m able to buy food and be around my family. Those are the most important things.”