All right, my triathlon-tribalist friends. Some of you surprised me recently. Despite the fact that you’re dyed-in-the-wool triathletes, you seemed to know little about the pros at the top of the sport. For instance, in my first blog I mentioned Sebastian Kienle, the new Ironman world champ. You admitted to me that you had no clue who the German cycling juggernaut was until you read my blog and Googled him. That shocked me. How could you not know who the new King of Kona is when you’re clearly devoted triathletes who spend more hours training than my kids spend watching the movie “Frozen”? *
But I’ve now begun to learn that you’re not unique. Like the triathlon nerd that I am, during some recent training runs, I threw around names like Jan Frodeno and Craig Alexander in an attempt to pass the time. Without fail, at least one person would ask me who the heck I was talking about, even though “Frodissimo” is an Olympic gold-medalist and “Crowie” is a three-time Ironman world champ and Kona course record holder.
That probably says more about the uninspired marketing efforts of triathlon’s governing bodies than the celebrity-triathlete IQs of you all. But whether that’s true or not, as a fan of triathlon – as I know you are, too – I feel it’s my responsibility to offer up some education.
From this point forward, I intend to showcase a top triathlon pro in every couple of blogs. These men and women are the finest and most inspiring athletes in the sport we love.
And if that sport is to ever grow beyond its niche-sport status, you and every other fan of triathlon need to know and support these folks.
There’s no one better to start off with than American Gwen Jorgensen. I can already hear the chorus of voices: Nordic surname who? Well, with all due respect to the likes of Andy Potts and Tim O’Donnell – don’t worry, I’ll explain who those two are in later blogs – Gwen Jorgensen is the greatest American triathlete in the game today.
Gwen stands at the pinnacle of ITU racing (you probably know it better as Olympic-distance racing) as the reigning 2014 world champion. In reaching that top spot, she became the first woman in history to win five ITU races in a row, with her streak culminating with a win at the season-ending ITU Grand Championship in Edmonton, Alberta. This makes Gwen America’s best hope for its first triathlon gold medal by a man or a woman in next year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Gwen’s also a marketer’s dream. To begin with, she’s got an appealing background story. Like many other pro triathletes, she sacrificed a well-paying career for triathlon’s relatively paltry prize purses: she was an accountant at Ernst & Young before chasing her triathlon dreams. Of course, she didn’t abandon her plush white-collar gig without good reason. Gwen had a distinguished athletic background before ditching her bean-counter colleagues, having been a swimmer and All-American runner at the University of Wisconsin. It’s because of that background in both swimming and running that USA Triathlon, in its eternal search for Olympic-quality triathletes, first recruited Gwen in 2010 to give triathlon a shot. She immediately proved them right to do so, qualifying for an elite card in her first triathlon ever. From there, she racked up a couple of decent accolades – you know, just becoming the 2010 USAT Rookie of the Year and the 2011 USAT Elite Race Series Champion – before qualifying for the Olympics in her first attempt in 2012, at which she finished a disappointing 38th in London because of a flat tire. Three years later, though, and she’s the undisputed queen bee of triathlon and the gold medal favorite for Rio.
What makes Gwen special is her run leg. She’s the Olympic-distance version of Ironman world champ Mirinda Carfrae – if you haven’t built a hefty lead over her across the swim and bike legs, you’re screwed. Because of her unmatched run speed, like me and the last bottle of beer in the house, Gwen will inevitably hunt you down before the finish line. Her race at the ITU Grand Championship is a great example. In Edmonton, Gwen was a minute and ten-seconds behind the leaders after the swim and bike legs, a good chunk of time in an Olympic-distance race. But since we’re talking about a former Big Ten champion in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters, it wasn’t nearly enough of a head start. On the 10K run she quickly rallied, ending with the fastest run split of the day at 33:24 and crossing the finish line a comfortable sixteen seconds ahead of her closest competitor.
A few months after Edmonton, Gwen emphatically showed off her pure running speed by winning the Dash to the Finish Line 5K, a respected road race held the day before the New York City Marathon that’s littered with pro runners. Her winning time was 16:03, a tad over a five-minute average-mile pace to us mortals. Among the over 4,000 women (and countless men) she outpaced was a British Olympic 1,500-meter runner. The best way to describe that kind of speed is holy-sh*t fast.
Gwen will also do an excellent job of selling the sport of triathlon and the products of its major sponsors because, in my humble opinion, she’s got super-model looks. So with Gwen, a sponsor could have the best of both worlds, an athlete who’s stunning but is more importantly a proven winner. The USAT would be foolish if they didn’t take advantage of Gwen’s sky’s-the-limit marketing potential when the Rio Olympics come around. With the USAT’s support (and maybe a talented agent) Gwen could become the face of triathlon, and possibly take the sport to new heights of popularity, expanding it into demographics beyond the ancient forty-year-old dudes like me who presently dominate the sport.
So please, if you’re passionate about triathlon – and you’re an American – remember the name Gwen Jorgensen. She’s deserving of your attention.
* True story: at my eldest son’s preschool, they’ve banned the kids from singing any of the songs from “Frozen” or bringing any “Frozen”-inspired toys to Share Day because of how disruptive to the classroom that movie has proven to be.