Gwen Jorgensen builds triathlon interest through personal performance and competitive scholarship foundation
When Gwen Jorgensen crossed the finish line at the 2015 International Triathlon Union World Championship Grand Final in Chicago last month, she became the first women in history to win two back-to-back world series titles.
Jorgensen’s win adds to her undefeated 2015 record that included a grueling race schedule of events across the globe, from Asia to Europe to North America. Arriving in Chicago a few days before the Grand Final Jorgensen tweeted, “Today is my first day on USA soil since 2014. It’s good to be back.” Beaming on the podium in her stars and stripes after the race, Jorgensen gave the hometown fans plenty to cheer about.
But big expectations for Jorgensen didn’t end in the Windy Cindy. She has already clinched her spot on the 2016 US Olympic Team for women’s triathlon, giving hope to many triathlons fans that an American female triathlete could make the podium in Rio de Janeiro. In 2012, the top female triathlete from the U.S., Sarah True, finished 4th, with Jorgensen finishing 38th after a flat tire on the bike. Jorgensen has a laser focus on achieving a different result next August.
“I think now that we’ve been to Rio we know what to expect for the course,” Jorgensen said, referring to her August 2015 victory at the US Olympic Trials held in conjunction with the Rio Olympic Test Event. “So my coach Jamie [Turner] will be able to really tailor workouts for that course.”
Regardless of the results in Rio, Jorgensen’s success has already ignited unprecedented levels of interest in women’s triathlon.
“I really believe we are on the cutting edge of [triathlon] totally exploding, through the Olympics and some of the success especially [that] the women have been having at the world cup level,” said Jon Metz, the head coach triathlon coach of Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y, one of ten schools to receive grant money this year from the NCAA to start a varsity triathlon program. Metz also credits USA Triathlon for its support in establishing the collegiate event structure and allowing triathletes new opportunities for varsity participation.
“USA Triathlon has been the catalyst to help move us forward, and we wouldn’t be where we today, and we wouldn’t have these teams assembled, without the help of USA Triathlon,” he said.
Jorgensen’s contribution to the sport extends beyond her athletic accomplishments. Last year, Jorgensen and her husband Pat Lemieux started their own scholarship foundation to help support young aspiring triathletes. They awarded a portion of over $20,000 in grant money to ten individuals, three triathlon clubs and a race production company. USA Triathlon and Jorgensen’s wetsuit sponsor ROKA partnered with her in funding the scholarship in 2014 and matched her initial $5,000 offer. The New York Athletic Club also donated $5,000 last year. The 2015 scholarship grant is set to include at least $15,000, according to Jorgensen’s website.
In addition to financial support, the scholarship also includes personal mentoring, and, this year, Jorgensen expects to reduce the number of winners in an effort to build a stronger connection with the selected athletes and teams.
“We just started going through some of the applications, and it’s so hard because there are so many good ones,” Jorgensen said. “Ideally, I’d like to award fewer so I’m able to stay a little more in contact with them throughout the year, but it just depends on what people need and what they ask for in the application.”
A collegiate runner and swimmer, Jorgensen started entered the sport of triathlon in 2010 through the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program, a program set up to recruit and train top collegiate athletes for triathlons after graduation. Over the last five years, she has transformed herself from a triathlon rookie to the number-one ranked female triathlete in the world, and she said she hopes that her scholarship foundation serves as a way to give back to the sport that she loves.
“It’s something we want to give back to the triathlon community,” Jorgensen said. “We really want to see the sport of triathlon grow, and it would be awesome if we could help some triathletes out like we’ve been helped out throughout the years.”
Kate Hastings, a triathlon All-American and senior at Mercersburg Academy, hopes to one day follow in Jorgensen’s footsteps to compete at the Olympic level.
“I think women’s triathlon being now an emerging sport is absolutely huge,” Hastings said in an email. “This will give women the chance to continue to pursue their dreams in such an amazing sport.”
Hastings said she plans to row in college but expects to participate in triathlons on the side.
“The one thing that is amazing about our sport is the age range,” Hastings said in her email. “Unlike many sports, we can do this up until we are 80 years old, but most top pros are in their 20s, so after college, I’m really going to pursue triathlons again!”
Jorgensen’s performance in Chicago generated attention from young athletes like Hastings, as well as fans around the world, but Jorgensen said her journey to the top of the podium wasn’t all golden. After a disappointing world championship race in Auckland last year, Jorgensen said she nearly quit the sport completely.
Since her comeback after the Auckland race, Jorgensen has racked up over a dozen international victories and earned a spot on the 2016 Olympic team. She ended her season undefeated and number one in the world, but Jorgensen said she doesn’t focus on rankings.
“You know, I just go to a race and I’m thinking about performing, and not thinking about what number I’m wearing or where I’m ranked, I go into every race prepared and trying to do my best,” Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen will enter 2016 as the top-ranked triathlete in the world, but she will have to wait until August for a chance to secure Olympic gold.
Shannon Scovel is a junior journalism student at American University where she serves as the Editor-in-Chief of her student newspaper, The Eagle. Originally from Cary, North Carolina, Shannon has a passion for sports and previously worked as a correspondent for the Raleigh News and Observer and USA Today College.