RIO DE JANEIRO — As she wobbled along on a flat tire four years ago in London, Gwen Jorgensen promised to turn that heartbreak at Hyde Park into a conquering of Copacabana Beach at the Rio Games.
She crushed both the course and the competition Saturday, giving the U.S. its first Olympic triathlon gold medal by cruising across the finish line in 1 hour, 56 minutes, 16 seconds.
That was 40 seconds ahead of silver medalist Nicola Spirig of Switzerland, who won gold at the 2012 Games after Jorgensen’s flat tire relegated her to a 38th-place finish.
Vicky Holland outsprinted British teammate Non Stanford for the bronze.
Jorgensen and Spirig were even until Jorgensen made her move with 2 kilometers left in the 10K final leg that followed a steep, 38.5K bike ride and a one-loop ocean swim.
As she approached the blue carpet, Jorgensen turned to look for Spirig, who wasn’t even in view around the bend.
Her goal within her grasp, Jorgensen lifted her sunglasses to her head and that look of dogged determination she’d had since London dissolved into a smile.
After crossing the finish line, she reached down and grabbed the green, gold and blue ribbon and held it high above her head in triumph before breaking down in tears.
She said she was thinking of all the sacrifices, not just hers, but those of coach Jamie Turner and her husband, Patrick Lemieux, who abandoned his pro cycling career to serve as her operations manager .
“I’ve been pretty vocal about my goal for the past four years. After London, I said I wanted to go to Rio and I wanted to win gold,” Jorgensen said. “And for anyone that’s been around me, they know how much my husband Patrick has invested. He’s given up his career to support me. And then I also have Jamie Turner, who I’ve been on this four-year journey with and he’s done so much for me.
“Just thinking about all the investments they’ve put into me and thinking about the four years, it all came down to one day,” Jorgensen said. “And to be able to actually execute on that day is pretty amazing.”
Jorgensen didn’t just fulfill her pledge she made four years ago but she checked off a bucket list box she’d long ago erased when she realized she was too slow in the pool to ever be an Olympian.
After an All-American track career at the University of Wisconsin, where she also was on the swim team for three years, Jorgensen settled into her first job as an accountant for Ernst & Young in Milwaukee in 2010.
One day, the phone rang. It was Barb Lindquist, who was running USA Triathlon’s college recruitment program. She suggested Jorgensen would be perfect for the sport that combines swimming, cycling and running.
Jorgensen didn’t even realize triathlon had been added to the Olympic program a decade earlier.
She agreed to give triathlon a try and quickly realized she was indeed a natural.
She took up triathlon fulltime and has emerged as the best female in the world, collecting 17 career wins in the World Triathlon Series and winning back-to-back ITU world championships before cutting back this year to focus on Rio.
On the course where she also won the Olympic qualifying race a year ago, Jorgensen used her superior hill climbing skills to make up a 12-second deficit coming out of the water, surpassing almost all of the 22 racers who’d been faster getting ashore in choppy water.
By the time she dismounted she was just two seconds behind leader Lisa Norden of Sweden and immediately broke away with Spirig, setting the pace.
They took turns drafting until the final 2 kilometers, when they exchanged words and Jorgensen took off.
“Nicola and I were playing a few games. We were running into the headwind and neither of us wanted to lead. So, we were just saying, ‘You lead, I led,’” Jorgensen recounted.
Finally, Spirig acquiesced to the inevitable.
“I already have a medal,” said Spirig, content at becoming the first female triathlete with multiple Olympic medals.
“Fair enough,” Jorgensen said after sprinting away for the gold. “Now, she has two medals and I still only have one.”
Just 30, Jorgensen would be the favorite in Tokyo in 2020, too.
“I’ve had a four-year plan and I’m definitely a planner,” Jorgensen said. “But I have zero plays for Aug. 21st, so wait and find out.”