Aug 29, 2014, 9:00 AM EST
Gwen Jorgensen leads the ITU World Triathlon Series rankings going into the season-ending Grand Final on Saturday, just as she did a year ago.
Jorgensen, who took up the sport in 2010, went to the 2013 Grand Final in London’s Hyde Park eyeing her first World Championship and a better finish than in her Olympic debut at the same site (38th, after a flat tire).
She accomplished neither.
Jorgensen crashed on the second bike lap and did not finish the 2013 Grand Final. She tumbled from first to fourth in the rankings.
“I’ll leave London even more motivated,” Jorgensen said last year, “and am very much looking forward to what next year holds.”
What a year it has been.
Jorgensen became the first athlete to win four straight World Triathlon Series events in the same season and leads the rankings by a mountainous 848 points (compared to eight going into last year’s Grand Final).
She will win this year’s World Championship (accumulating World Series results) with a finish of 16th or better in Edmonton on Saturday. A fifth straight win would cap one of the most dominant years for any Rio Olympic hopeful.
“I still make mistakes. I’m not unbeatable,” said Jorgensen, truthfully, since she finished 12th in Auckland and third in Cape Town in April before rattling off four straight wins. “You go into every race, and you have no idea what’s going to happen.”
Jorgensen’s rise also couldn’t have been predicted.
She graduated from Wisconsin in 2009 and was less than a year into an accounting job with Ernst & Young when approached out of the blue by USA Triathlon.
Jorgensen competed for the Badgers’ cross-country, swimming and track and field teams, but won zero NCAA Championships medals.
Still, that multi-sport background that appealed to USA Triathlon.
Jorgensen proved a natural, quickly gaining elite status and making her first World Triathlon Series podium in 2011.
Her real leap came after the London Olympics, when, seven minutes after the winner, she crossed the Hyde Park finish line thinking only about gold in Rio.
Jorgensen changed her training regimen later in 2012, from working mostly alone in the U.S. to joining a group of men and women splitting time in Wollongong, Australia, and Vitoria, Spain.
Jorgensen is now the target, two years before the Games go to Brazil.
She won her most recent World Series event in Hamburg, Germany, by six seconds, though she was at her “D game,” said her coach, who also believes Jorgensen still has room to grow.
“If I give somebody an inch, they’re going to take a mile from me,” Jorgensen said.
American triathletes have collected a total of one medal since the sport was added to the Olympics in 2000 — a bronze in 2004.
We may be in the midst of a professional breakthrough in a sport already known for rising recreational participation in the U.S.
The world’s second-ranked female triathlete is also American, Sarah Groff.
To have any chance Saturday, Groff and the other contenders must lead Jorgensen going into the run, and by a hefty margin.
Jorgensen has beaten the field by 63, 84, 39 and 84 seconds in the running splits of the four World Triathlon Series events with 10Ks this season.
“If it comes down to a running race,” she said, “I’d say it’s my race to lose.”
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