Gwen Jorgensen at top of women's triathlon world

Relative newcomer to sport off and running — and biking and swimming to international success that can continue Saturday in Chicago

OLYMPIC PREVIEW- Team USA Media Summit-Day Two

Team USA women's triathlete Gwen Jorgensen during a portrait session at the 2012 Team USA Media Summit. (Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports / May 14, 2012)

It figured Gwen Jorgensen would be riding in a van headed to the Madrid airport for a flight to Chicago when we talked earlier this week.

Jorgensen always is going somewhere, including seven countries in eight weeks earlier this year, all of them a long way from her roots in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha.

And in the last two years, she really has been going places in the triathlon, a sport Jorgensen first tried barely four years ago.

Jorgensen comes into Saturday's World Series event in Chicago as the world's top-ranked woman, having won two of this season's first four races and finishing third in another on the triathlon's top competitive circuit.

She won three of eight last year, including the career-highlight victory in San Diego that made her the first U.S. woman to win a World Series race. She would top the women's victory list in the series' six-season history with a triumph Saturday.

Her career began going from very good to exceptional a few months after she finished 38th at the 2012 Olympics, where a flat tire knocked her far from contention.

The difference?

"I switched coaches to Jamie Turner and got into a training group," she said.

That would be the Wollongong Wizards, based in the eponymous city south of Sydney for the first five months of the year before shifting to Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain's Basque country in the spring. She is the only U.S. athlete in a 10-member group that includes Aussies Brandon Sexton, a 2012 Olympian, Aaron Royle and Charlotte McShane, the last two each the winner of an Under-23 world title in the last two seasons.

"It's a huge change for me to be in a daily training group," Jorgensen said. "Somebody always is having a good day, and that pushes you to be more competitive."

For the first two years after USA Triathlon recruited Jorgensen into the sport after she finished a running and swimming career at the University of Wisconsin, she basically trained on her own while working as an accountant for Ernst & Young in Milwaukee.

She took a leave from the accounting firm to concentrate on training for the 2012 Olympics and since has become a full-time professional triathlete.

Jorgensen, 28, had been a varsity swimmer her first three of five years in Madison and a runner the last three, which included her finishing a master's degree in accountancy.

On the track, she won Big Ten titles in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters and finished seventh in the NCAA 5,000. In cross-country, she took second in the Big Ten meet and 19th in the NCAA.

"I'm not very good at swimming," she insisted. "I was probably the worst on the team."

She has remained an outstanding runner, setting a race record (32 minutes, 21 seconds) while winning the Australian 10-kilometer road championship in May. And she swam well enough to have two legs up in triathlon, even before she bought a road bike to begin training for the third leg.

Because drafting is allowed in Olympic-style triathlons, cycling would seem the easiest place to hide a lack of skill or experience.

"That's what I was told," she said, laughing. "But you have to be a world-class swimmer, runner and biker to be a world-class triathlete."

Her fiance, Patrick Lemieux, a former professional cyclist, has helped her get more comfortable on the bike through hours of riding together.

Lemieux did get off the bike to propose last December after suggesting they stop on a Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis — Jorgensen's off-season home — to take pictures of a winter wonderland scene after the first big snow. Their wedding date is Oct. 4.

After that, the date foremost in Jorgensen's mind is the yet-to-be-determined day of the 2016 Olympic triathlon in Rio de Janeiro.

"We'll see where this takes me," she said of her long-term future in a sport that already has taken her around the world.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

Chicago Triathlon

What: ITU World Triathlon Series, an eight-race series for the world's best triathletes making its Chicago debut. It includes a .93-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike and 6.2-mile run.

When: Elite women, 12:30 p.m. Saturday; elite men, 4 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Swim start, Monroe Harbor east of Buckingham Fountain; Race finish, Buckingham Fountain.

Prize money: To top 20 finishers, with $18,000 for first, $12,000 for second and $8,000 for third.

CHICAGO

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