Today’s A to Z challenge entry was originally a chapter in my Olympics book, cut for brevity’s sake (more info on Triumphs You Didn’t See here). I still had the notes though; never throw away all your edits! Because the Women’s Triathlon in Rio remains one of the most memorable races I’ve seen.
Gwen Jorgensen, American Olympic triathlete, was doing tax work as an accountant at Ernst & Young when she got the call.
For the record, there have been other accountant athletes — Ray Wersching, champion kicker on the 49ers and Craig Counsell, second basemen for the Brewers, to name a few. Accountants take the CPA exam to get employment, a set of professional tests after college, a tough, exhausting exam. At two and a half days long, it covers four separate sections, fourteen hours of seat time. Most people don’t pass it the first go-round, and it takes months or years of preparation, typically with coaching.
Kind of sounds like a triathlon.
World’s Greatest Accountant Athlete
While Jorgensen was getting her masters in accounting at the University of Wisconsin, she excelled at swimming and also held the Big Ten records for track and cross country. You start to see the connection. Barb Lindquist, Triathlete Coach for Team USA, certainly did.
Jorgensen was likely minding her own business at a happy little cubicle in Wisconsin, determining the most efficient way to amortize goodwill from a merger… and here comes Lindquist, calling her up out the blue. How about becoming the world’s greatest triathlete?
Gee, will I have to travel?
Probably so. Not too many locations for an open-water swim, 25 mile bike ride, and 10K run over there in Wisconsin. Especially in the winter.
There might have been Olympic dreams when Jorgensen was a young swimmer, dreams quashed when she didn’t clock Olympic-like times. She settled for a solid business degree and enjoyed beating the crap out of other Big Ten schools in her “free time.” Maybe she created a spreadsheet with the statistics, split times, race times for competitors, and pacing data that added up to an Olympic win.
Lindquist was convincing, and the numbers added up.
Not Ironman, But Not a Walk in the Park
Any triathlon is a tough race. Even “mini” triathlons take elite athletes an hour and two plus hours for the average schlub (I’ve actually done them). The Ironman format, invented in the 1980s, is better known, although the Olympic format is not so brutally long. Swim in open water for just under a mile, bike for 24 mi (38k), and run 6 mi (10k).
The first Olympic triathlon was in Sydney in 2000. The Aussie women liked it right away, taking a silver medal in Sydney and 5 of the 12 medals since. The Swiss like it as well, taking gold and bronze in the 2000 games and more medals since. Team USA hadn’t yet won a gold.
The biggest challenge is swimming. You can learn bicycle tactics or how to pace a 5K. You can’t learn how to breathe. Swimming is what keeps amateur athletes who are great runners or cyclists from starting in the first place. A good swimmer who can bike or run track is a natural for the sport. A good swimmer who has Big Ten records in running is IDEAL for the sport.
Also, the transition from cycling to running is merciless on the quadriceps. With the lactic acid build-up in your thighs, those moments when you put the bike down and get going are unpleasant. Marathon runners would understand. If you already run a lot, cross country or other serious distances, you know what it feels like. Gwen Jorgensen did.
With London in her sights, Jorgensen had been dutifully training. But at the 2012 Games, after finally achieving her dream of reaching the Olympics, the unthinkable happened. In the cycling portion of the race, she got a flat tire. That was that. She finished 38th.
The ending was dull for Jorgensen but darned exciting at the front. Triathlons often end much closer than marathons, even though they last about as long. The difference is usually a few seconds. But not nanoseconds. London 2012 ended as close as it gets.
As a large pack enters the run around Hyde Park, they are down to four in the last 20 meters. USA’s Sarah Groff, Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig, Sweden’s Lisa Norden, and Australia’s Erin Densham are battling. Groff appears to start running backward as the others zip past; she finishes worst, in fourth, off the podium. Spirig surges forward with a good kick, but Norden follows, fighting right to the end. The Swede had been gaining as she crosses the tape, but Spirig’s torso on the picture comes first. The Swedes file a protest, but Spirig wins the photo finish.
Jorgensen, who had turned her life upside-down, doesn’t give up easily. She maps out a new training Plan for a second chance. She starts winning races, every race. By 2016, she had gone undefeated in the last 13 races. Four years was long, but a triathlete is used to waiting.
Try Not to Get Dunked or Swallow Water
One of the biggest pre-Olympic stories was the water pollution in the open water swim. Videos of brown water pouring out of pipes near Copacabana showed that Rio had not met its commitments to the IOC. The Brazilian response that “everyone swims there all the time” was rather unsatisfactory. Some athletes worried, though many said they had swum in worse. (Fortunately, there were few reported illnesses afterwards. ) On August 20, 2016, there’s nothing the elite triathletes can do about it now.
Running into the water from the beach, the women’s swimcaps are all orange, which seems a disadvantage. Apparently shenanigans happen in the water, and judges need to see the caps clearly. In a past Olympics, fouls were so flagrant that two racers were disqualified just as they were coming into medal. Fouls can be anything from pulling someone’s suit down, kicking, or just grabbing a swimmer under the water. Things happen. (See Water Polo.)
Athletes can swim in each other’s wake, though it’s preferable not to be close. Accidental kicks hurt as much as intentional ones. Swimmers want to get their full arm stroke in as well, tough in a crowd. Going over the waves requires huge arm swings (Ledecky-like) with a little kick, the arms doing most of the work. The legs are happy with that, since they’ll do the lion’s share once out of the water.
Jorgensen joins USA teammates Kate Zaferes and Sarah True, both also coached by Barb Lindquist. Spirig, the gold medalist from London, is here too, after dropping out of the triathlon circuit for years. Spirig had a baby; she ran marathons; she ran an Ironman. Jorgensen has not raced with her.
As the orange caps pass the giant yellow buoy, a volunteer in a kayak paddles madly backwards to keep the wave of swimmers from swamping his boat. The mass of swimmers exits with Jorgensen is 14 seconds behind, a little puzzling to her as she was swimming near the front. That time could be important later, that photo finish no doubt weighing on her mind.
A Jaunt Through the Hills above Copacabana
The cycling course will climb through hills, although nothing like the savage Vista Chinesa loops from the road race. As they jump on bikes, hurrying out of the transition area, a peleton of 25 forms, only ten minutes since the swim start from the beach.
After a lap, the elite cyclists dominate the front. Team USA is bunched at the back, the navy jerseys of Zaferes, True, and Jorgensen visibly together. Spirig is up towards the front. Spirig likes the bike. Apparently, the way to defeat recently-unbeatable Jorgensen is to push her on the bike, so Spirig is in front, doing that.
Halfway through the hills, the leaders are taking turns on the bike, following the unwritten rules. The camera on the peleton doesn’t catch it when disaster strikes American Sarah True. Her bike has gone down. Getting up, she rubs her knee like a genie can come and put it to rights. She tries pumping straight uphill, then stops again. Not her day.
Fog starts sliding in over the beach towards the town. A rhythm builds— pack — breakaway riders — pack. The peloton shifts and stretches and recoagulates. At 1:02 on a sharp descent, Jorgensen is now mid-pack, about fourth. Sarah True stops and leaves the race. Zaferes, too, has dropped behind the leaders and will eventually finish a respectable 18th.
The announcers mention that Spirig has been doing a lot of longer races to maintain her stamina. Suddenly, the cunning plan comes into focus — the marathon, the Ironman — she is trying to outlast Jorgensen when they get to the flat.
At 1:15, Spirig has shaken off most of the others, but Jorgensen and a small group are now cycling right behind her. Spirig pushes the pace and Jorgensen goes with her, but not in front; they are not trading off. Jorgensen is just like a predator watching… well, watching a former gold medalist.
I Already Have…
Spirig’s game plan hasn’t worked. Jumping off the bikes, Jorgensen is in fourth with a time of 1:22:07, but Spirig is only a second ahead. A Japanese racer decides to take the lead on the first of four laps, in this pack of about six, though she quickly fades.
Both the American and Swiss runners wear dark glasses, so it’s not possible to see what they see, but they are so close, their view must be the same. Visualizing the tape, perhaps. Spirig is a little choppy but still in front. They have now been racing for over an hour and a half.
Spirig and Jorgensen pull away, shaking the other runners off after a fast first lap. The next laps are slower. The pack behind the two leaders is now four: Beijing-winner Moffatt, two Brits—dangerous in tandem—and Riveros from Chile, a “hometown” favorite. Those four are running for bronze.
With less than a lap to go, Spirig slows down and starts jogging across the pathway, weaving in front of the American. She seems to be urging Jorgensen to go in front. Jorgensen, apparently not wanting to play cat and mouse game, refuses. On the bike, it would be protocol to trade places. In a marathon, you would not want someone running right on your heels like this. But in the triathlon, the rules might be a little different.
They have a conversation; it doesn’t appear to be a meeting of the minds. Jorgensen seems to say yes and goes in front, picking up the pace. Spirig tucks in right behind her. They slow down, they speed up. The runners behind are around ten seconds back and will come into view if the duo keeps this up.
The two women practically stop for a stroll, at 1:47. They are smiling and chatting with about a mile and a half to go. Spirig takes a turn at the front, then Jorgensen. Behind them, the two Brits, Holland and Stanford, are inching up, practically glued together at the shoulder.
At 1:50, Jorgensen takes off. No more talking. Perhaps she is finally hatching the plan the two had discussed. She goes out fast, and Spirig’s shoulders noticeably sag. The winner from London glances back briefly to make sure she knows who is behind. Jorgensen’s kick is like a visible blow to the gold medal, leaving the silver in its wake. For the last few minutes, Jorgens pounds pavement alone.
With the finish line in view, Jorgensen finally allows a smile to light up her face. She raises her glasses, and her eyes are sparkling. She can finally hear the crowd lining the streets cheering, over the sound of the pounding in her ears and the pounding of her heart. She breaks the tape. Gold medal. Tears flow. Four years. She holds up the tape and turns to cheer on Spirig, who lopes in, adding a silver to her gold from 2012.
The British are coming. Holland zips in with a sprint right ahead of her teammate Stanford, who lies down panting. Chilean Riveros comes in fifth, and the Brazilian crowd is pretty darned happy. Australian Moffatt is happy with sixth in her third Olympics.
But what exactly was the conversation between Spirig and Jorgensen, as the two strolled along the beach? Jorgensen later recounts it:
“She said I already have my medal.”
Does that mean, I already have a medal so you go try for yours, but I don’t guarantee I’ll let you have it? Or does that mean, I have mine, you can have yours? Whatever it meant, after a two hour race, swimming in polluted ocean water, racing through hairpin turns that just a day or so ago left someone with a concussion, running on this pounding flat — Jorgensen was cautious. Still running the numbers in her head. Until she realized Spirig was willing to let it go.
Nobody Knows Gwen
Gwen Jorgensen has won as many Olympic medals as Caitlyn Jenner or Muhammad Ali. But as a friend says, “Nobody knows Gwen.”
They ought to know her now.
Since Rio, Jorgensen has given birth to a son and, in the aftermath, retired from triathlons. She took a brief swing at marathons, but heel problems forced her to consider shorter races. She had been training for the 5000 and 10,000 when Covid threw a wrench in her plans to qualify for Tokyo. But the distance races, long dominated by the Kenyans, could be a possibility. No doubt she’s been picking apart their times and devising a complex strategy. All part of the Plan.
Because whether anonymously famous or famously famous, whether winning or not quite winning, whether it’s a 3 day exam, or a 3 hour race, whether it’s one sport at a time or all three at once, Jorgensen just loves a challenge.