Aug. 2, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
• NBC Olympics Bio | Photos: Gwen Jorgensen
MADISON, Wis. -- As part of the parade of U.S. Olympians during the 2012 Opening Ceremony, there was a slight temptation on Gwen Jorgensen’s part to get her picture taken with LeBron and Kobe, especially since the bigger-than-life NBA stars were so accommodating to all such requests. Jorgensen resisted any such urge. “But if I would have asked them, they would have taken a picture with me, for sure,’’ she said.
Their team spirit on the Olympic stage stood out to Jorgensen in the midst of all-world pyrotechnics, the Queen, and Sir Paul McCartney. “The basketball players were so high-profile and everyone was asking to take a picture with them,’’ she noted. “But they were so patient and willing; always smiling and saying yes. You kind of realize that things like that bring everyone together.’’
There were some other photo ops during last Friday night’s opening ceremonies in London that did appeal to Jorgensen, a 26-year-old UW grad from Milwaukee who will be competing in the triathlon. “I sought out some of my fellow Big Ten rivals, I guess you could call them, ’’ she said. “I also sought out Evan Jager and Matt Tegenkamp to get a picture taken with them as well.’’
Once a Badger, always a Badger.
Jager, the current American record-holder in the 3000-meter steeplechase, and Tegenkamp, the U.S. record-holder in the two-mile run, are former UW athletes. Jorgensen crossed paths with other old friends and foes during the two days that she spent in the Olympic Village before relocating to Guilford (27 miles southwest of London) for her pre-race training.
“When I got to the Olympic Village, it was the first time that I actually felt like saying, ‘Wow, I’m at the Olympics,’’’ Jorgensen said. “It was an incredible feeling; the people there were so welcoming and friendly. They have everything you would ever expect (at the village), everything you would ever want, and a thousand other things that you would have never thought of. It’s like, ‘Gosh, that’s so cool.’’’
Jorgensen repeatedly used the word “amazing’’ to describe her early experiences, which included a chance meeting with Team USA swimmer Dana Vollmer, who set a world record in winning the gold medal Sunday in the 100-meter butterfly. Vollmer was anything but standoffish. “She was super friendly,’’ Jorgensen said. “That’s how everybody has been, and it has been incredible to meet them.’’
Jorgensen’s innocence is not only refreshing but reflective of her limited background as a triathlete and swift ascension to the elite level. She is a little over two years removed from finishing second to Poland’s Agnieszka Jerzyk at the 2010 FISU World University Championships in Spain; marking the first stage in her meteoric rise in that it was only her second triathlon.
Did she see it coming? After completing her masters at UW, and shortly after landing an accounting job with Ernst & Young in Milwaukee, she was recruited to the sport by the national governing body, USA Triathlon. Did she have any idea back then -- March of 2010 when she took part in her first triathlon, an elite development race in Clermont, Fla. -- that it might all lead to London and the 2012 Olympics?
Jorgensen did, after all, pick up her pro card on her way to becoming USAT Rookie of the Year.
“No way,’’ she said. “I never thought it would happen, so it’s pretty incredible.’’
Pretty rare, too, given her path to prominence and rapid ascent.
At Waukesha South High School, Jorgensen lettered in track and swimming but she chose to drop the former and focus on the latter at the UW. For three years, she swam for the Badgers and qualified for the Big Ten championships in each of those seasons (2004-2007).
Having sufficiently gotten her feet wet with modest gains, she switched gears her junior year on the urging of her high school track coach.
The results were most gratifying, too. In 2008, she was recognized as an All-American in cross country and track. In 2009, she was twice a Big Ten champion with an impressive double in the 3000 and 5000 meters (along with being the recipient of the Big Ten Medal of Honor).That helps account for two of the three disciplines in the women’s triathlon -- the 1500-meter swim, and the 10,000-meter run.
Now all she had to do was embrace and master the third element: biking 43 kilometers. Good luck with that since Jorgensen, by her own admission, was never really fond of cycling. As it turned out, Jorgensen’s support group overwhelmed her with their generosity.
That included her boyfriend, Pat Lemieux, a pro cyclist. They met on a group ride, he asked her to dinner, and they’re still a team.
|Watch Jorgensen in London
The women's triathlon is set for 3 a.m. (CT) Saturday at Hyde Park in London. NBC Sports Network (channel finder) will offer live coverage of the event, with a simulcast available online at NBCOlympics.com or via the NBC Olympics Live Extra app for iPhone, iPad or Android.
Asked to explain the success that she has enjoyed on the bike, Jorgensen said, “It’s really the support I’ve been given. Everybody has bent over backwards to help me along the way -- from bringing in cycling coaches to me going on group rides. Everyone in the cycling group is a community. After a ride, it’s always, ‘Do you want to work on some of your skills?’ They’re always willing to help.’’
Expanding on the question du jour -- What has made her so good so quickly? -- Jorgensen measured her assets as a swimmer, runner and cyclist and said, “I had the aerobic base. A lot of things from sport to sport carry over -- the time you put in and the focus; things like that -- things that come with every sport. That’s the common thread; putting quality time in (training) and giving it your all.’’
Her education and training in Madison as a student and an athlete were integral components of her success equation.
“I loved my time as a Badger; they were some of the best years of my life,’’ she said. “You learn dedication and discipline and you learn to respect your teammates. You also learn how to lose. There were plenty of times when I had horrible races. You learn how to win as well.’’
Jorgensen is the youngest among the U.S. Olympic triathletes. She joins Laura Bennett, 37, a fourth-place finisher in Beijing; and Sarah Groff, 30, another first-time Olympian.
Jorgensen shocked many with her second-place finish last August at the 2011 ITU World Championship Series in London’s Hyde Park. It was the best showing ever for a U.S. woman in a WTS event. Her 10K run split was 33 minutes, 43 seconds.
That assured her of a return trip almost exactly one year later to London and Hyde Park, the site of Saturday’s competition. Visualization has always been a part of her race preparation. It’s no different now.
“For sure, I have a sports psychologist and we’ve talked about that,’’ she said. “You visualize a race that is obviously going to go well for you, but you have to be prepared for anything on race day because you never know.’’
Handicapping the favorites in the 55-women Olympic field, she said, “I don’t really single out any one or two athletes. I really do believe anyone who has made it to this level is physically able to win a medal. Anyone is a threat and you have to be prepared for that. The weather could definitely change the race. It could rain, it could be cold. Again, you have to be prepared for anything.’’
What would it mean to Jorgensen to reach that medal stand?
“It’s going to come down to who’s mentally prepared and ready to go (Saturday),’’ she said first of her chances before conceding the obvious. “It would be an incredible honor to medal. It would be a little way of me just giving back to everyone who has given to me throughout the years.’’
Amazing, in a word.