If her win at ITU WTS San Diego last Friday was any indication of what's to come, American Gwen Jorgensen has a promising year ahead.
Considering she earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team less than two years into her career, Jorgensen's raw talent has produced some early success. But after her Olympic campaign didn't go as planned—a bike mechanical took her out of medal contention pretty early—the almost-27-year-old decided she would need to step up her game and make some significant changes in order to medal in Rio in 2016.
Quick recap of Jorgensen's short multisport career: She got her start through USA Triathlon's Collegiate Recruitment Program in 2010, a result of her impressive swimming, track and field and cross-country prowess at the University of Wisconsin. She earned her elite card in her first triathlon, was named USAT Rookie of the Year in 2010 and, after some success on the ITU circuit in 2011, she secured one of the first Olympic team spots a year before the Games.
Fast-forward to life after the Olympics, and Jorgensen's perspective has changed on what needs to happen before another Olympic campaign. Late last year she started working with coach Jamie Turner, who heads a 10-person squad that splits training time between Wollongong, Australia, and Vitoria, Spain (she was formerly coached, mostly remotely, by Wisconsin-based Cindi Bannink). In January, Jorgensen and her boyfriend, Pat Lamieux, moved to Wollongong to focus strictly on her training in a group setting.
Jorgensen was drawn to Turner's coaching style and approach based on observing his interactions with other athletes. She decided to make the switch after racing the 2012 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Auckland, New Zealand, where she finished second.
"I needed to change something, and thought this would get me to the next step—to have someone one-on-one at every workout to see what I'm doing wrong, and to have training partners to push me," Jorgensen says.
Turner and his squad of mostly Under-23 ITU athletes provide the daily challenge Jorgensen was lacking.
"The main thing Gwen was looking for was an environment," Turner says. "She needed to be in a daily performance environment instead of at home by herself doing workouts."
Plenty of Jorgensen's competitors have reaped the benefits of immersing themselves in a group environment—including fellow American Sarah Groff, who spent much of the year in Switzerland training in Darren Smith's competitive squad and ended up taking fourth in the Olympics.
"You've got cases of some outstanding performances from athletes who work more in isolation," Turner says. "Or you have an athlete like Gwen who will progress faster in an environment where she's exposed to her peers. If she's deficient in something and she's training by herself, no one is really highlighting that for her. She's just training and doing exercise prescriptions and not being confronted every day by her opposition, it's difficult to make a change. I like my athletes rubbing shoulders with their opposition."
Jorgensen says the squad is really encouraging and motivating, and that the dynamic of training alongside younger girls has given her the "well if they can do that, I can too" mindset when it comes to things like motor pacing or handling skills on the bike.
"She's happy to be confronted by the other girls in a daily environment," Turner says. "They all have their strengths and weaknesses. She's certainly not the fastest swimmer or fastest bike rider, and 99 times out of 100 she beats them on the run, but when Gwen’s having a bad day they love to put it into her. She's really fortunate that the running is so natural to her. She says herself that she’s gifted. But that subsequent run performance will only be a product of what happened an hour and a half before it. So what are we working on? We're working on the hour and a half before the run."
The pair has spent a few months focusing on the swim, taking it back to stroke basics and technique—Turner believes "speed is a product of economy" -- sometimes doing double-swim days.
"Before I was just going through the motions in everything," Jorgensen says. "Now when I'm swimming and biking I'm always thinking about something I can improve upon. Jamie is known for his swimming and that's something that, although I grew up swimming, I feel like I'm one of the weaker swimmers -- I'll come out in the back of the front pack and I want to be at the front of the front pack out of the water."
Last Friday in San Diego, Jorgensen came out of the water in the top 10, and she was visibly more comfortable on the bike, staying at or near the front of the second pack the whole leg. She confidently ran her way through top contenders like Australian Emma Moffatt to take her podium spot.
"A good analogy for Gwen is that it's like taking a muffin to a cake icing competition," Turner says. "You can put the sprinkles and all the fancy stuff and everything on top and it will look alright. And Gwen's alright sometimes, but unfortunately she's always been a muffin and not a cake. We have to build a cake and create a highly resilient product of human that can withstand the demands, and then we can put the icing on. But while she’s a muffin, she'll never win a cake icing competition."
Both Jorgensen and Turner will readily admit that the move to Australia (and the upcoming move to Spain) would've been a difficult one without her boyfriend moving along with her.
"I didn't really know Gwen before, but I'd seen a resistance of not wanting to immerse herself," Turner says. "I think there was a level of complacency. The biggest asset she's got is not me, it's Pat. For her to pack up and move to Australia for three months, that's a big thing for Gwen. In the Midwest they really value family, so it was potentially daunting in the past, but having Pat along—he’s making things happen for Gwen and gives her a lot of stability to make these investments."
Turner believes she has a lot more clarity now on what goes into competing on a world stage.
"Early success, instant gratification on a little bit of work—those things are hard to deal with ... Hard work only beats talent that doesn't work hard," he says. “Gwen was probably a talent that wasn’t working to her capacity. Now Gwen knows that she has to be talent to work hard to win.”