Gwen Jorgensen

From accountant to Olympic gold: A courageous leap


By Neil Amato

Instead of being mediocre in two full-time careers, Gwen Jorgensen was determined to be great in one.

Through determination, a focus on making an investment instead of making sacrifices, and overcoming fear, one-time corporate tax accountant Jorgensen won the gold medal in the Women’s Triathlon at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“We won’t grow unless we push ourselves,” Jorgensen told CGMA Magazine in an email. “I do things that scare me all the time, but it allows me to grow and learn.”

Jorgensen, a swimmer and runner at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-2000s, figured her competitive days were over when she became a licensed CPA and began working for EY. She was recruited by USA Triathlon, which had studied her times in swimming and running and told her she could be an Olympic-calibre triathlete.

At first, Jorgensen resisted, but USA Triathlon was persistent, and she later decided to pursue the triathlon while continuing to work. She was training early in the morning, going to work, and training again in the evening. Races were on weekends, but many involved travel overseas.

“I wasn’t giving either job enough attention,” Jorgensen said.

So she took a giant career leap, leaving the firm and eventually moving to Wollongong, Australia, to train with a renowned coach of other elite racers. The move to full-time training was a financial risk – in Jorgensen’s mind, a sacrifice.

Eventually, coach Jamie Turner helped her change that view.

“He said to stop using the word ‘sacrifice’, and instead use the word ‘investment’,” Jorgensen said. “I kept saying, ‘I’m not willing to make that sacrifice (of being away from home).’ He said, ‘View it as an investment in your future.’ Daily, I would do things that weren’t always fun, but I knew I was making an investment in my future and believed I would have a return on my investments.”

In the 2012 Olympics in London, Jorgensen finished 38th after suffering a flat tyre on the cycling segment. Starting in May 2014, she finished first in 19 of 21 races leading up to the Olympic race in Rio: a 1.5- kilometre swim, a 40-kilometre bike ride, and a 10-kilometre run. Although Jorgensen was the favourite, she faced a major fear – a steep and hilly descent that racers had to navigate for all eight laps of the cycling course.

Jorgensen is the world triathlon circuit’s most dominant runner, often content to stay near the back of a lead group during the cycling. But staying behind other competitors on steep curves was not ideal. If one of them crashed, she could crash, too. And there is vulnerability if the leading cyclists break away.

Her ability to manage curves and hills, to embrace instead of fear that part of the course, helped put her in perfect position to pull away during the run and bring home the gold medal, the first by a US competitor in triathlon. The advice Jorgensen offered to accountants is advice she lives by:

  • Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Learn new skills to better manage your weaknesses.
  • Be passionate and focused. “Both are pivotal and lead to hard work, dedication, investments,” she said. “Both accounting and triathlon embody these key factors.”
  • Seek knowledge from others. “I would suggest finding a mentor who you respect in a role that you want to learn about. Ask questions and learn as much as you can.”

Jorgensen, 30, didn’t wait long to continue testing her boundaries. Days after winning Olympic gold, she announced a decision to run the New York City Marathon. The race on November 6th will be her first at the 26.2-mile distance.

“I’m always looking to challenge myself,” she said. “The marathon is going to be so different than anything else I’ve done. The past four years, everything was focused on one day and one goal, which was winning gold in Rio. I’m now going to do a marathon without proper preparation and no expectations. Ever since college, I’ve wanted to do a marathon, and I’m excited for the new challenge.”

Neil Amato (namato@aicpa.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.