Gwen Jorgensen was sitting on the floor by herself in the HED trade show booth at Interbike two years ago. The show had just closed for the day and the booth was empty.
My Interbike habit for going on 30 years is to meet at the HED booth end-of-day to make dinner plans and that's when I met the world's best Olympic-style triathlete. She was determined to stick around, however long it took, to make sure she saw Steve and Annie to thank them for their support. Hmm, I thought. This is a pro athlete of special substance, apart from and beyond athletic performance. This is a hand-write thank-you-card kind of pro.
I contacted Gwen, now triathlon's toast of the town, and asked when she might find a moment to speak to Slowtwitchers. I told her we'd be patient, and I expected we'd work it all out in a few weeks. She responded to my reach-out in minutes, and the interview took place 2 days afterward. Here's what she said.
SLOWTWITCH: You were one of the last 5 or 6 women out of the water to make the front pack. Were you spooked after you got on the bike and saw most of the pack in front of you? Or was it, “I got this”?
GWEN JORGENSEN: I had a really good swim, with 200 meters to go I was swimming in the top 10 in the race. With 200 meters something just happened, I don’t know if I didn’t catch the wave in or what happened. I entered 20-something I think. I got out of the water, to me it was a make or break moment. I got on the bike and tried to make my way up as soon as possible. I wasn’t thinking “oh, no” but I was aware of the situation, that it was a critical moment.
ST: The bike ride was the source of greatest peril for you. Were you surprised it wasn’t more of a challenge? That you didn’t have to work harder than you did?
GJ: Who said I didn’t have to work hard?! Jamie Turner did a fabulous job preparing us for the race. Look at the other athletes in the group, Bárbara Riveros, she was really strong going up the hill as well. We were prepared really well, it was a tough bike course. You train to be prepared for that. Nicola kept attacking on the bike, attacked everyone, people didn’t want to attack on the bike, they were maybe scared. There weren’t many surges besides hers.
ST: Do you think Nicola’s attacks didn’t work because she or the other women just don’t quite have it figured out how to establish these kinds of breakaways?
GJ: I think if you look at past races this year, you’ll see there were a lot of breakaways that stuck. There are a lot of strong riders, a lot of attackers, a lot of breakaways. It was something I was expecting. The Olympics is a unique race. Everyone prepares. Everyone wants to win. A little different atmosphere than normal races. If there’s a break everyone wants to be in it. Everyone wants to cover [attacks]. In a regular WTS race maybe that’s not the case.
ST: The other American women, was there any plan for them to work for or with you if a gap occurred?
GJ: No. We had 3 U.S. women all medal-capable. Race plan was for us all to go out there and try to win a medal.
ST: I think most people knew that Nicola would eventually get dropped in the run, but after 7k she was still there. Was it then that you knew you’d need to do something a little different, tactically different, or extra? Can you explain how that went?
GJ: I like to build throughout my run. She was with me for 2 laps. I wanted to see how she was feeling. I wanted her to take the lead for a little bit. She didn’t want to take the lead. That’s obviously when we had – you probably read this – she said to me, “Let’s share the lead.” I said, “I’ve led the last 2 laps.” She said something like, “I already have a gold medal, if you want one you need to work.” We were playing a little bit of cat-and-mouse, nobody wanted to lead. In my head, I didn’t want to make a move until the tailwind. It’s easier to get away in a tailwind than a headwind. She eventually took the lead, when we rounded the corner I decided to make a move. I thought she was with me. I had no idea I’d dropped her until a K or so later.
ST: We all knew you were going to drop her, but I think when you’re in the moment, you’re going hard, close to the red line, someone’s still on your shoulder, it’s a little easier for spectators to have confidence in you than for you to have it.
GJ: [Laughs] Completely. Yes. I would agree with that.
ST: Let’s talk about your upcoming marathon. How serious are you taking this? And, look, I understand that for years you’ve had the stress of expectations leading up to the Olympics, and the last thing you want is expectation stress for the marathon. But… is this a, “Hey, I’m going to run 3 hours,” or is it, “I’m in it to win it.” Where are you on this?
GJ: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with, I’ve 4 years of dedicated focus and investment – what do I need to do that would help me win a gold medal? And I would only do something that would help me win a gold medal. For the marathon, I’ve always preferred running since high school and college. I’ve wanted to do one. What better time to run one than after this 4-year plan, being rigid in everything I’ve done. Time to do a bucket list type thing. But I’m not naïve. I’m still doing Cozumel [ITU Grand Final], and then Island House Triathlon a week before the marathon. The little training, 6 weeks or whatever, I haven’t altered my training but if I do I’m not naïve and I know that’s not enough to try to win it. It’s more me going out and trying to have fun. I’m also sponsored by Asics [the NYC Marathon sponsor]. So it’s time to do a marathon.
ST: Would I assume you’ll increase your run mileage per week but you’ll still continue cross-training?
GJ: I wish I could give you a firm answer. I haven’t talked to [her coach] Jamie [Turner] about it. That’s what I’m thinking in my head but I need to sit down with Jamie. We haven’t even talked about it honestly. Everybody’s asking me questions about it but I don’t really want to think about it yet. I’m still on such a high from the Olympics!
ST: Okay. But I’m just going to ask this and I won’t ask any more about it. When you lay your head on your pillow at night, and think about that marathon, do you see yourself running in that front 2:25 pack?
GJ: You know, right now when I put my head down on that pillow and Patrick asks me if I know how long that is, 42k, and I think oh my gosh. That’s insane. My longest run has been 1hr40min. Sometimes I do double runs. But when I think about that sheer volume I go oh my gosh. But one of the reasons I want to do it is that it’s just such a different challenge than what I’m used to. But to have expectations would just be silly.
ST: After all of this, are you happy staying with ITU racing, or are you thinking about 70.3 or Ironman?
GJ: That thought never crosses my mind. [Husband] Patrick [Lemieux] and I want to have a family. But I want to get back into sport for sure. Long distance, non-drafting, not something I’m passionate about.
ST: You anticipated my next question. Family.
GJ: For me, Pat and I have wanted a family for awhile. It’s something we're ready to start trying to have right now. We had 4 years of a goal; that goal is accomplished. You can’t plan it. You can’t say oh, I want to get pregnant right now. It’s not something you can control but it’s something we’re both passionate about. We’re both willing to try; when it happens it happens, but when it happens you can’t plan that.
ST: You’re an Olympic Gold Medalist in triathlon. Have you thought about that achievement, in the context of the sport? I know this is a tough question; you just won the medal. Have you thought at all about an idea, strategy, initiative, passion, that you now have the power to execute or exercise? Because you have the gold medal? As regards sport, or women, or endurance sport, or triathlon, or kids tri, or Olympic development?
GJ: It’s something I haven’t thought about. But just you saying those things, I am very passionate about getting the younger generation active, and involved in triathlon. I think it’s a really healthy lifestyle, and it’s also a very welcoming environment. Everbody in the triathlon community is so kind. It feels like a family to me and I’d love to introduce others into the sport of triathlon. It was a huge honor to win the first gold for the U.S. in triathlon, and to bring it back to the country where it started. I think that’s pretty cool. I hope that gets more children involved in the sport.
[The images above are among those Brazilian photographer Wagner Araújo shared with us, immortalizing Gwen's Olympic moment.]