By Susan Lacke, RunningCompetitor.com
It was a modern-day Cinderella story: a tax accountant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, turned Olympic gold medalist. Gwen Jorgensen was made for prime time, and Olympic commentators at the 2016 Rio Games breathlessly recounted how a random phone call changed the course of her life.
“Have you ever considered triathlon?” asked the voice on the other end. Barb Lindquist’s job was to identify single-sport athletes who showed Olympic potential in triathlon. Jorgensen, a former collegiate swimmer and runner at the University of Wisconsin, was at the top of her list.
At first, Jorgensen laughed. She firmly believed her athletic days were behind her after graduation. Though she won a handful of 3,000 and 5,000 meter races in her collegiate career, her times were hardly competitive in an Olympic context. Also, she didn’t know how to ride a bike—and wasn’t that a prerequisite for a sport that combined swim, bike and run?
Lindquist acknowledged that the odds were stacked against Jorgensen, but there was something there. “We think you’d be quite good at it,” said Lindquist. “Just give it a try.”
In Jorgensen’s first triathlon in 2010, she came in second place. By 2012, she had earned a spot at the London Olympics, where she placed 38th after a flat tire on the bike. She spent the next four years declaring her intent to win at the 2016 Games, no matter what. In a stark contrast to the London Games, she had a near-perfect race in Rio, outrunning defending champion Nicola Spirig of Switzerland.
In the span of only six years, Jorgensen rocketed to the top of the sport, with an unparalleled 17 World Triathlon Series victories, two world championship titles and the first U.S. athlete to win Olympic gold in triathlon. She was all but a lock for a medal in the 2020 Tokyo Games.
And then she shifted gears.
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