Gwen Jorgensen has a new goal for the Tokyo Olympics.
A new sport, too.
The reigning Olympic triathlon champion announced Tuesday that she is switching to the marathon, with the intent of claiming gold in 2020. U.S. women have won two medals in the Olympic marathon: Joan Benoit Samuelson’s gold in 1984 and a silver by Deena Kastor in 2004.
“I’m excited to just try something that’s completely new,” Jorgensen told USA TODAY Sports ahead of her announcement.
“I also think, triathlon, it picked me. USA Triathlon came to me and said, ‘We think you’d be good at this.’ Marathon is something I’m now picking. That as well is something really exciting and really motivating.”
Jorgensen first considered running a marathon three or four years ago. She was an All-American in track and cross country at Wisconsin, and the Big Ten champion in both the 3,000 and 5,000 meters in 2009. The run was always her strength in triathlon, with competitors knowing they were beat if she was anywhere close to the lead after the swim and the bike.
But she had set her sights on the triathlon gold in Rio after a flat tire derailed her medal hopes in London, and disrupting her training to do a marathon was not an option. She decided after Rio to run the New York Marathon, and finished 14th in 2:41:01 — despite not having run longer than 16 miles before the race.
“I had so much fun doing that, but I did it and I was disappointed. I thought I could do better,” Jorgensen said. “I wondered, What could I do if I immersed myself in a training environment? What if my longest run wasn’t an actual marathon?”
Those questions persisted, even as she made plans to return to triathlon after having her first child, Stanley, in August.
“A lot of things have changed” since Rio, Jorgensen said. “I kind of felt like I achieved what I wanted to achieve (in triathlon), and what I needed was a new challenge. … This makes me excited, and makes me really passionate to get up every day and train.”
While the unknown is energizing, it’s also daunting. Jorgensen knows she’ll need to cut about 20 minutes off her time in New York to contend for gold in Tokyo. She’ll also need to dramatically increase her mileage, going from the 40 miles a week she ran during triathlon training to more than 100, and she doesn’t know how her body will react.
She’s currently rebuilding her base following her pregnancy, and will begin mapping out a race schedule once she’s back to full fitness. That’s going to require her to be strategic because elite marathoners rarely run more than two marathons a year.
“We’re on a tight time schedule,” Jorgensen acknowledged. “It’s not that long until Tokyo. If you work back from Tokyo and the Olympic trials, I don’t have many opportunities to perform. There’s going to be this huge learning curve in a small amount of time, and I’m going to have to take risks in training and competing.
“Hopefully those risks will pay off.”
Jorgensen said USA Triathlon was supportive when she told them of her new plan, and she intends to stay involved in the sport. She and husband Patrick Lemieux have a scholarship program for up-and-coming triathletes, and she did a conference call with athletes at a training camp last weekend.
But the 31-year-old knows she’s got a small window to chase her marathon dream, and she doesn’t want to pass it up.
“When I told my parents and some family members, some of them thought I was crazy,” Jorgensen said, laughing. “It’s risky. It’s me stepping away from the sport when I’m at the top. But it’s just not where my heart’s at. I just need to follow what’s in my heart.”
For 26.2 miles.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.