Olympic gold medal triathlete Jorgensen shares stories in Madison

Ex-Badgers athlete and Waukesha native relays her Olympic experience
Olympic gold medal triathlete Jorgensen shares stories in Madison
Gwen Jorgensen of the United States of America competes in the ITU Women's Elite Sprint race during the ITU World Triathlon Hamburg on July 18, 2015 in Hamburg, Germany.

Just three months off of a gold medal performance at the Rio Olympics, triathlete Gwen Jorgensen s already looking ahead to the 2020 games in Tokyo.

Now living in St. Paul, the Waukesha native and University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate was back in Madison last week as the headliner for the 13th annual Saris Gala to benefit the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation. Attendees at the event at Union South had a chance to mingle with the ex-Badger, who has been dominating the professional triathlon circuit over the past three years.

Unlike the grueling Ironman length events —which include a 2.5-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26-mile marathon —Olympic distance triathlons feature a 1,500-meter swim following by a 40-kilometer bike and 10-kilometer run. Those races take two hours to complete versus the nine hours or more to get through an Ironman event.

And Jorgensen claims she has no interest in switching over to longer events, though she did run the New York City Marathon on Nov. 6, finishing 14th among female finishers in two hours, 41 minutes.

“It was a new experience for me and it was really exciting,” Jorgensen told TeamUSA.org after the race. “I have a great respect for the course and the distance, and I know the other professional runners in the race are very talented and hard-working. A couple of them flew by me at the end and I couldn’t hang on.”

The story has been told many times how Jorgensen was recruited by USA Triathlon after becoming an NCAA All American in track and cross country at UW–Madison. She had also been a member of the Badgers swimming team, making her a perfect candidate for the multi-sport events.

Madison’s Cindi Bannink, a certified coach with USA Triathlon, helped set up a training program and offered advice to Jorgensen prior to the 2012 Olympics in London. Jorgensen finished a disappointing 38th at the London Olympics after suffering a flat tire in the bike section.

Four years later, after winning the 2014 and 2015 ITU World championships, Jorgensen was determined come back from Rio having reached the top of the podium.

“To win a silver or bronze would have been a real disappointment,” she admitted. “I know that sounds crazy, but that was the way I approached it.”

The Olympic race featured some cat-and-mouse games between Jorgensen and her main rival, Nicola Spirig from Switzerland, who had taken the triathlon gold in London.

“She kept telling me I already have a gold medal so if you want one you better take the lead,” Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen did just that, taking off on the last lap of the run and cruising to the victory.

After graduating from Waukesha South High School, Jorgensen was sure she wanted to attend UW-Madison the first time she visited the campus.

“I just fell in love with Madison; it’s a beautiful place” said Jorgensen, who earned a master’s degree from UW–Madison in accounting and worked in the Milwaukee office of Ernst & Young before launching her full-time triathlon career.

Because of the gold medal, Jorgensen says Minnesota is now claiming her as one of its own. She’s OK with that even if it came a bit late.

“St. Paul is my home and I wanted them to claim me back in 2012, but now finally are,” she said.

Not that Jorgensen doesn’t have plenty of fans supporters in Wisconsin. During the fund-raising auction at the Bike Fed event, a collection of Jorgensen’s gear—including two racing suits and a pair of sunglasses—sold for $2,300.

“I’m a huge fan and wasn’t going to let that stuff get away,” said winning bidder Penny Muzi of Milwaukee, a triathlete who has competed in the world championship.

For Jorgensen, the biggest challenge to winning gold was getting over her fear of riding fast on a bicycle. Good bike-handling skills are crucial in Olympic triathlon because competitors are allowed to draft behind other riders. Drafting is not allowed in Ironman events.

In fact, it wasn’t until a trip to southern California in 2015 that the final piece of Jorgensen’s triathlon game came together and it involved more mental training than anything.

To get over her fear of speed on the bike, Jorgensen sat on the back seat of pro racer Eric Bostrom’s 1000 cc motorcycle and learned how to relax and scan the road while flying around corners. That experience paid off on the screaming fast Rio Olympics bike course that sent many of the best riders in the world crashing to the pavement.

“It was so scary but that really helped me,” she said.

The Bike Fed Gala began in the warehouse of the Saris Cycling Group off Verona Road a dozen years ago and has grown into the largest bicycle advocacy fundraiser of its kind.

“The goal, as always, is to get more people on bikes and to create more places to ride safely,” said Bike Fed Executive Director Dave Cieslewicz. “We’re redoubling our efforts across the state, doing more public education on safe cycling than ever before and gearing up to push an ambitious agenda at the state level.”

The Saris Gala has featured special guests over the years including famed Tour de France TV commentator Phil Liggett, ex-pro rider Bob Roll and mountain bike designer Gary Fisher. Jorgensen was the first female headliner.

Mike Ivey is a Madison-based writer whose journalism career includes 30 years at The Capital Times.