Gwen Jorgensen ’08, MAcc’09 has taken a roundabout way to Rio that began in Madison.
The Waukesha South High School standout runner and swimmer didn’t plan to attend UW–Madison — thinking that it was too close to home — until she visited campus and fell in love with the atmosphere. Though she had more raw talent as a runner, she followed her passion by walking on with the swim team.
Left behind when teammates competed in an NCAA swim meet, she felt discouraged. Her high school track coach suggested that she switch to running for the UW. She told him no. “I knew what it took to get to the next level and didn’t think I could,” she says.
He arranged a mid-season tryout for her anyway. “I was on the team the next week,” she recalls. The 5’9” phenom went on to All-America honors in track and cross country in 2008.
After finishing her master’s degree in accounting, Jorgensen began working at Ernst & Young in Milwaukee and considered her days of elite competition behind her. But then a recruiter from USA Triathlon headquarters called with a life-changing question: Ever consider triathlons?
Jorgensen hadn’t. “I didn’t even own a bike,” she says.
Realizing that she missed competition, she decided to try the grueling sport that combines swimming, cycling, and running. Jorgensen did so well in her first race in 2010 that she achieved elite status, putting her among the best in the world. In subsequent events, she qualified for the 2012 Olympics. A flat tire during the cycling stage dropped her to thirty-eighth place, but when she crossed the finish line in London that year, she set a goal of winning gold in Rio this summer.
Jorgensen committed to training abroad, but two years later, after another discouraging finish — this time in Auckland, New Zealand — she wanted to abandon the sport. Her fiancé — now husband — Patrick Lemieux, urged her to persevere.
Jorgensen did exactly that, going on to conquer the competition by winning twelve consecutive events in the International Triathlon Union’s World Triathlon Series. Her progress is astonishing: she has become the most dominant triathlete since the sport became an Olympic event sixteen years ago.
She looks forward to once again representing the United States on a world stage, but the woman who used to race with Bucky Badger painted on her cheek says she has not forgotten her roots: “I’ll always be a Badger.”
Published in the Summer 2016 issue