The Olympic triathlete's choice to switch sports reminds us that it's never too late to chase a dream.
From Triathlon To Marathon Success
Gwen Jorgensen traded in a career of dominance in triathlon, including becoming the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport, for the goal of winning the marathon in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. While running fans may see that as an almost unachievable dream in such a stacked women’s marathon field, the determination and diligence that carried her to the highest levels of triathlon prove that you can never count her out.
On a 95-degree summer day in Portland, Ore., Gwen Jorgensen walks into the studio where we’ll be photographing her for our cover. She’s accompanied by her husband, Patrick “Pat” Lemieux. Both exude a sense of Midwestern politeness and warmth (and for Jorgensen, the “eh?” at the end of sentences gives away her Wisconsin roots).
Jorgensen carries her 5-foot-10, 130-pound frame like a world-class athlete—strong, upright, poised. In between looking at apparel options, answering interview questions and checking out the studio space, she intently and eagerly watches her phone—her Bowerman Track Club teammates are racing at the USATF Outdoor Championships, an event from which she had flown back the night before after her own race was over. Her husband sits beside her on the couch, listening and filling in dates and details she’s looking for whenever she asks him for them.
Jorgensen has an air of energy and enthusiasm about her new career—she switched from triathlon to running last November, less than three months after giving birth to her son, Stanley. The 32-year-old’s positive energy doesn’t come across as naivete. She realizes she has an uphill battle ahead of her if she’s going to make the Olympic marathon team in less than two years. She just knows that, with the support of her family, running group and coach, she is ready to rise to the challenge.
Jorgensen participated in track and field and basketball growing up, but swimming was her true passion. “I grew up watching the Olympics, and when I was swimming, I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” she says. “But pretty early on, I was stuck with the reality that I wasn’t good enough.”
Even so, when she attended University of Wisconsin–Madison, she was able to convince the coach to let her join the swim team. “I was the worst on the team,” she says. Her high school running accolades had colleges seeking her out, but she wouldn’t even open those letters. She did start running collegiately her junior year, and that’s when she caught the eye of USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body.
During her senior year of college, former Olympic triathlete Barb Lindquist approached Jorgensen about joining USAT’s Collegiate Development Program, which was designed to funnel collegiate swimmers and runners into a sort of Olympic development program, with the eventual goal of earning more American Olympic medals in triathlon. The Olympic style of triathlon (called ITU, for International Triathlon Union), which is a 1500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike and 10K run, utilizes a draft-legal format—you can follow closely enough behind another cyclist to face less wind resistance and conserve energy. By recruiting swimmer- runners, USAT’s thinking was that the bike portion could be taught.
Jorgensen agreed to participate, but it would be something she did on the side—she had started her first post-college job as a tax accountant at Ernst & Young while flying all over the world on weekends to race on the World Triathlon Series circuit. She was named USAT’s 2010 Rookie of the Year, but she only started to turn heads in 2011, in the test event on the triathlon course in London, one year out from the Olympics. Seven years ago, it was a rare feat for an American to make it onto a podium in those races, but Jorgensen—seemingly out of nowhere—finished in second and became the first to secure her spot on the 2012 Olympic triathlon team.
In 2011 she also met her now-husband on a group ride in Milwaukee. A professional cyclist, Lemieux was introduced to her by a mutual friend, who asked Lemieux to help give her some pointers on the ride. They talked the whole ride, ended up going to dinner that night, and they’ve been together ever since.
Going into the 2012 Olympic Games, Jorgensen was seen as a potential wild card for a medal. For the first time, she dove into triathlon fully, taking a leave of absence from her accounting job in late 2011 (she never returned). On the big day, she missed the front cycling pack out of the swim and then got a flat tire on the bike, finishing in 38th place.
That race put the fire in her for a gold medal. “I believe that moment and getting that flat tire was what really brought me to want to achieve and want to get that gold in Rio,” she says. “I feel like that was just such a positive thing that came out of that. It just kind of molded the athlete I became.”
For the next four years, Jorgensen worked tirelessly, driven by the dreams of winning an Olympic gold. She switched from using an online coach to Jamie Turner, who required her to live abroad nine months out of the year in a group training environment. “I changed my mindset into being willing to take more risks and make more investments,” she says.
Her race results over those four years proved Jorgensen’s commitment to achieving Olympic glory. She won an incredible 17 WTS races all over the globe and became ITU world champion twice (2014 and 2015). It was typically her blazing-fast 10K run splits that earned her those titles (her wins and run speed even led to triathlon fans coining the hashtag #Gwensanity).
Her dominance on the ITU women’s triathlon circuit was unprecedented and groundbreaking, and she paved the way for other American women to aim higher in their racing goals. “One thing my old coach in triathlon, Jamie Turner, really instilled in me was not ever striving to be the best American,” she says. “Instead of trying to just be ‘first American,’ ‘second American,’ ‘third American,’ we’re trying to be the best in the world. And I think that sort of mindset has really allowed a lot of the other American triathletes to rise up.”
Jorgensen was highly favored for the gold going into the Rio Olympics in 2016, and triathlon fans eagerly watched the NBC coverage of her running shoulder to shoulder with Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig (the 2012 gold medalist) before she pulled away and took the victory. Jorgensen cried at the finish line—those four years had paid off.
Jorgensen was open with the media and her fans about trying to get pregnant after the 2016 Olympics, but first, she decided to try a new challenge and jumped into the New York City Marathon that fall. “I’ve always wanted to do a marathon,” she says. “My coach said, ‘Well, if you want to do marathons, maybe you just want to see what it’s like and get that experience.’ So I decided to do it.”
It was her first time running 26.2 miles, and she finished in 2:41:01 in 14thplace, a respectable result, especially just 71 days after her Olympic victory.
Then in January 2017, she announced her pregnancy, with a due date of early August. After her son, Stanley, was born, the triathlon world was shocked to learn in November 2017 that its best athlete would be retiring from the sport.
“Obviously we had a great system and we had a great playbook to win races, to win medals,” Lemieux says, who had quit his career as a pro cyclist in 2013 to support Jorgensen’s burgeoning triathlon career. “But I think that people who were in Gwen’s inner circle knew that she didn’t live and breathe triathlon and knew that that wasn’t her greatest passion. She just happened to be really, really good at it. I think trying to find that motivation to work super hard to try to win another gold medal—I’m not sure that same discipline could be replicated again.”
Some fans recognized that Jorgensen had essentially outgrown the sport of triathlon—she had become practically untouchable at that style of racing, at one point putting together a 12-race WTS winning streak. Not to mention, the ITU racing schedule is difficult to maintain as a parent—with races everywhere from the Gold Coast of Australia to the cobblestone streets of Hamburg and desert sands of Abu Dhabi, it would be a challenge just to keep racing. If she were going to leave the sport while she was on top, many assumed it would be to ride off into the sunset, so to speak, and start her family.
However, Jorgensen wouldn’t just be retiring—she made the bold proclamation that she wanted to win gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the marathon. She says her two biggest reasons were passion and challenge. “Triathlon wasn’t my love,” she says. “I hated swimming every day, and running is something that I really wanted to do, and I felt like I hadn’t reached my potential in running. I wanted something new, something that would motivate me.”
While other Olympic triathletes switch to longer distances, such as Ironman and half-Ironman, that wasn’t an option for Jorgensen. “It just doesn’t excite me. I’m really motivated by the Olympics, and that’s not in the Olympics,” she says. “The marathon is an iconic Olympic sport, and that’s what excites me about it. I also like how it is such a spectator-friendly sport…to have so many people out there, cheering you on.”
To start her new career, Jorgensen had to find someone to help her reach the elite level, so she reached out to Jerry Schumacher, coach of the Bowerman Track Club. Jorgensen had contacted a few other coaches before him, none of whom were willing to take a chance on her, but Jorgensen knew Schumacher from her college days—he grew up in her hometown of Waukesha, Wis., and coached the men’s track team at the University of Wisconsin while she was there. “He didn’t say, ‘Yes we can do this,’ but he said, ‘We have no idea what your potential is, and let’s give it a shot,’” she says. She signed on to the Portland, Ore.–based team last November, joining running superstars such as Shalane Flanagan, Shelby Houlihan and Amy (Hastings) Cragg.
“It’s almost expected in that group that you win and that you are successful—there’s just this high standard,” Jorgensen says. “And I think that really allows everyone in the group to blossom.” While they’re direct competitors, the other women are helpful on training runs—giving hints, providing encouragement and even taking the lead so she can hold on longer in workouts.
“The big reason I wanted to join them was because I believe to be successful—something I learned in triathlon—I need to surround myself with people who are better than me to become a better athlete,” she says. “I know that on a daily basis, I’m going to be confronted with the world’s standard, and I’ll know, ‘This is what it takes—if not more—to be successful.’”
Jorgensen describes Schumacher’s coaching style as “very calculated,” like a “mad scientist.” “He knows how to develop athletes, and he always has things going on in his head and a plan, but that plan is very fluid depending on how the athlete is developing,” she says. He won’t tell his athletes what his plan for them is, in case things change, and he’s always looking out for what’s best for the athlete.
She enjoys the autonomy he gives his athletes as well—while he may guide them by telling them to run 100 miles that week, he lets the athletes have the freedom to figure out when and how they’re going to accomplish it. “I think that is really key as well because it makes it very individualistic,” she says, “and every athlete kind of needs a different avenue to success.”
In February of this year, just five months postpartum, Jorgensen posted a 15:15.64 for 5,000m at the Husky Classic in Seattle, Wash., a PR by 35 seconds and good enough for second place. Then in April, she clocked a PR of 31:55.68 for the 10,000m on the track at the Stanford Invitational in Palo Alto, Calif., winning the race. She placed seventh in the 10,000m at the USATF Outdoor Championships in June, and jumped into a few well-known road races, including the AJC Peachtree Road Race (fifth place) and the TD Beach to Beacon 10K (eighth place).
While she felt disappointed by some of her finishes, she’s learning from them. “I think what really excites me is I feel like I’m improving, and every week—because I’m so new to it and I’m doing so many new things—every week I’m able to make a little step forward, which is exciting,” she says. “Whereas when you’re at the peak of your sport, you’re going to have weeks when you’re not improving.”
Becoming a mom has also helped her keep her workouts in perspective. “If I have a bad workout or if I have an injury and have to take a day off or something like that, I come home, and I have my son, Stanley, and I just forget about it,” she says. “There’s no sulking; there’s no being mad about it—it’s just like you come home, and you’re completely distracted from it.”
Lemieux fully embraces his role as stay-at-home dad and “caretaker”—managing all the cooking, errands and laundry—and says that’s why their relationship dynamic works. “We both just accept our roles really, really well,” he says. “She likes and enjoys being the athlete and has an incredible amount of self-discipline and stubbornness that I think is found in many great athletes. I take great pride in my work still and recognize that I want to be on a winning team.”
While Jorgensen and Lemieux would say that they’ve been able to transfer a lot of their knowledge from triathlon to running, it still comes with its own set of challenges, specifically learning how to stay injury- free in a very one-dimensional sport. “In triathlon, I would literally just wake up, roll out of bed and go for a run,” Jorgensen says, since triathlon can be seen as a form of cross-training in itself. “There’s no way I could do that right now. I’m doing a lot of prehab—I have to do static holds an hour before my run, and then I have to do 30 minutes of [muscle] activation before my run. I think that’s been the hardest unexpected transition.”
Jorgensen also credits seeing a pelvic health physical therapist as an important component to recovering from childbirth and staying healthy as a single-sport athlete. She’s seen a PT once a week for the last year, and she’s learned to activate small inner core muscles. She’s convinced she’s even stronger than she was before, with her proof being her running PRs.
This fall, Jorgensen will be racing the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 7, and she’s excited to test her fitness against top-tier Americans such as Amy Cragg and Jordan Hasay. She acknowledges that the U.S. boasts some of the world’s best marathoners, making her 2020 Tokyo goal a long shot, but she’s also excited to be a part of this era in American women’s distance running. “It’s really on the rise,” she says. “A couple years ago, I don’t think you’d think that American distance running was the best in the world, and I think now people are. And as that happens—as you have people get better—it only pushes everyone else to become a better athlete.”
Besides her 2020 goal, she wants to inspire fellow mother runners. “I want women to know that you can have a child and come back, and that you can get that body back and excel in whatever you want to do,” Jorgensen says. “Having a baby doesn’t have to stop you from anything you want to do.”
And what she wants to do is be a world-class athlete and enjoy time with her family. “She’s doing what she absolutely loves, and that’s been a great benefit for us,” Lemieux says. “Like today, she has a rough training day and comes home, but the minute Stanley sees her, he’s got a great big smile and we’re all laughing. Having that positive energy around the house has been so awesome—so great for me and Gwen personally, and Gwen as an athlete as well. And ultimately that will help propel her toward future success in running.”