Gwen Jorgensen is leaving triathlon as the Olympic champion to pursue a gold medal in the marathon.
“It’s a huge risk to switch sports right now, when I’m arguably at the top and could make more money than I’ve ever made in triathlon,” the 31-year-old said. “However, I am motivated by a new challenge. Triathlon picked me, and now I’m picking marathon.”
Jorgensen, who announced the news on social media, accomplished everything she wanted in triathlon — Olympic and world titles and the longest winning streak since the sport was added to the Games in 2000.
Her new goal is to win a World Marathon Major like Boston, Chicago or New York City and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Her last race before her recent pregnancy was actually her marathon debut in New York City on Nov. 6, 2016. The former University of Wisconsin runner was 14th in 2 hours, 41 minutes, 1 second, more than 16 minutes behind the winner.
Jorgensen was disappointed.
She was also unprepared. Her buildup was triathlon training. Her longest run before toeing the line in Staten Island was 16 miles. The weekend before New York, she won a three-day triathlon stage race totaling 64 miles of swimming, biking and running in the Bahamas.
Jorgensen announced in January that she would take the entire 2017 triathlon season off to have a child. Stanley Lemieux was born Aug. 16. Jorgensen will figure out her 2018 race schedule once she is able to train at least 100 miles per week (she’s barely able to crack 30 miles two months after giving birth).
Few athletes leave at the top of their sport, in their prime, to pursue a different sport.
Michael Jordan is the notable exception, retiring from the NBA at age 30 in 1993 to try baseball after winning three straight NBA titles.
Jorgensen was just as dominant in triathlon. She won a record 13 straight top-level events — going undefeated for nearly two years — en route to becoming the first U.S. Olympic triathlon champion in Rio.
Her original goal was to defend that title in Tokyo, but the last year brought changes. The New York City Marathon. A move to Portland, Ore. The pregnancy and her first child.
“My time away from triathlon allowed me to reflect and set new goals,” Jorgensen said. “My biggest passion has always been running out of swim/bike/run, and I also feel this isn’t the first big challenge I’ve had before.”
That’s true. Jorgensen didn’t know the difference between 1500m and a mile when she started running her junior year at Wisconsin after walking onto the Badgers swim team as a freshman. She became an NCAA All-American the following year.
She had never ridden a triathlon bike when USA Triathlon recruited her to the sport eight years ago, away from an Ernst & Young accounting job. She qualified for her first Olympics two years later.
“I’ve had a few different athletic pursuits that started out not so great and ended OK,” she said.
Jorgensen will miss the relationships she built in triathlon. Her coach, Jamie Turner of New Zealand. Her training group in Australia, the Wollongong Wizards.
But she is no longer motivated to continue in Olympic-distance triathlons. Other Olympians moved to Ironman triathlons, but Jorgensen always swore that off.
“The major reason I’m trying to do marathon is because I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish in triathlon,” she said. “If I hadn’t gotten that gold [in Rio], it definitely would have been a failure. I remember going into the Olympics thinking if I get silver or bronze, it’s a failure.”
Jorgensen first mentioned to Turner that she had marathon ambitions about three years ago, but they were put aside until after Rio.
Now, after so many changes in the last year, come more. Jorgensen knows she must find a group training atmosphere to succeed, like what worked with Turner in Wollongong.
Other Olympic triathlon medalists have run marathons.
Swiss Nicola Spirig ran three between winning triathlon gold in 2012 (and giving birth to a boy in 2013) and silver in 2016. She clocked 2:37, 2:42 and 2:46.
Portugal’s Vanessa Fernandes shared triathlon’s longest top-level international winning streak before Jorgensen strung together 13 wins in a row. After an Olympic silver in 2008, Fernandes left triathlon for good in 2011 and clocked a 2:31 marathon in 2015.
Jorgensen knows that she must drop about 15 minutes from her 2016 New York City Marathon time to be competitive on the world level.
“Which seems ridiculous, but at the same time, I think I can do it,” she said. “It’s risky, and I think some people can look at it and probably think I’m being silly. Actually, I have some family members who think I should stay in the sport of triathlon. But, for me, I’m really motivated right now by trying something new and doing this running thing and seeing if I can do it.”
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