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Jorgensen Prepped and Ready for Another Shot

Former college athlete heads to Rio with an Olympic medal in mind

Photo credit: Delly Carr ITU

Six years ago, Gwen Jorgensen was working as an Ernst & Young accountant in Milwaukee. She held a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had passed the certified public accountant exam and was focusing on corporate taxation.   

Then the walk-on swimmer who had become an All-American runner for the Badgers decided to give one more sport a try. A pitch from Barb Lindquist of the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program convinced Jorgensen to take up cycling, and gave her a new focus – Olympic gold.  

Jorgensen finished her first competitive triathlon in March 2010. She earned her elite license just 17 months later and qualified for the 2012 Olympics in London. She worked part time at Ernst & Young until late 2011 – falling back on time management skills she learned while going to school and competing at the NCAA level – then turned her full attention to preparing for the Olympic Games.

The path from corporate tax accounting to the  international swimming, running and cycling competition was an unexpected one. But as Jorgensen takes another shot at Olympic success in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, she can look back on her experiences in college and see that it was preparing her not only to be a successful accountant but an Olympian as well.

Triathlon may not have been an NCAA championship sport when Jorgensen was a Badger – in fact, it was only recently named an NCAA emerging sport for women, meaning it has a 10-year window in which at least 40 schools must sponsor it before it can become an official NCAA championship. But there were important lessons and experiences at Wisconsin that prepared her for the leap to the Olympics.

First, Jorgensen credits her academic credentials as helping her make the move, providing “something that helps me breathe a little bit and not have to worry (because) I knew I could always have a job.”

“You’re also exposed to a lot of things that world-class athletes are exposed to – things like recovery and massage and the importance of resting and fueling my body right,” said Jorgensen, who had competed in only one super-sprint triathlon on a mountain bike in high school before her meteoric rise in the sport. “Having access to all of these things that help you learn and become a better athlete and person was something that was really vital to me.”

To Lindquist, who swam for Stanford University and was a 2004 U.S. Olympian in triathlon, athletes with an NCAA swimming or running background are top targets for good reason. And college athletics’ fingerprints are prominent on the U.S. team.

All three female 2016 Olympic qualifiers are past NCAA athletes, including former Middlebury College swimmer Sarah True, who finished fourth in London in 2012, and former Syracuse University cross country and track and field competitor Katie Zaferes. Two of the three men named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic triathlon team also competed at the NCAA level: Greg Billington (Wake Forest University, cross country/track and field) and Joe Maloy (Boston College, swimming).  

Lindquist said the lessons they learned as college athletes pay off at the international level.

"In triathlon, you need to be very organized with your time," Lindquist said. "As a student-athlete in college, you learn time management. So having those intangible pieces also helps." 

A flat tire on the bicycle portion of the London games derailed Jorgensen’s medal hopes four years ago. She finished in 38th place. But even she couldn’t have predicted she would be in a position to compete for a medal again in what is an unpredictable sport. 

"Every race is completely different and that's something I like about the sport," she said. “You go into the triathlon and you have no idea what could happen on race day and you have to be prepared for anything.”

Olympic competition begins at 11 a.m. local time (10 a.m. Eastern time) Aug. 18 (men) and Aug. 20 (women), with Copacabana Beach serving as the main venue.