Gwen Jorgensen’s secret weapon
Gwen Jorgensen may be the world’s best triathlete, but her husband, Patrick Lemieux, breaks the first sweat on race day.
Lemieux rises at the crack of dawn to prepare oats with eggs, Jorgensen’s pre-race meal. He then zips around the race venue, doing everything from assembling her bicycle to lugging around six liters of her drinking water.
“It is a 24/7 job,” Lemieux said. “I have to match my efforts to what Gwen is doing as an athlete.”
In 2013, Lemieux abandoned his career as a professional cyclist to focus on helping his then-girlfriend maximize her athletic potential.
They now spend nine months out of the year away from their home in St. Paul, Minn. During that time, Lemieux manages all of the couple’s logistics, including the maintenance of apartments in three different countries as Jorgensen races on five different continents.
“People can’t comprehend the lifestyle,” Lemieux said in an interview at Right To Play’s Big Red Ball fundraiser in November. “If you’re not in it, you can’t comprehend it.”
With Lemieux’s support, Jorgensen won back-to-back triathlon world championships in 2014 and 2015.
“Everybody always wishes they had a Pat,” Jorgensen said. “It’s a huge advantage that I have.”
Lemieux proved his penchant for helping from the moment he met Jorgensen.
Jorgensen was a regular at a Wednesday night bicycle ride in Milwaukee while working full-time as an accountant at Ernst & Young. The cycling group, with mostly male riders, maintained a grueling pace.
“I got dropped every week,” Jorgensen said. “I was a horrible cyclist at the time.”
Lemieux joined the group one Wednesday in 2011 while in town from Minnesota. A mutual friend, Tom Schuler, introduced Lemieux to Jorgensen, hoping that Lemieux, as a professional cyclist, might have advice for Jorgensen on how to keep pace with the group.
As they rode together, the conversation drifted away from cycling. Near the end of the ride, Lemieux casually asked Jorgensen to join him for dinner later that night. Jorgensen hesitated, knowing she had to work early the next day, but ultimately accepted the invitation.
Lemieux then requested Jorgensen’s cell phone number. Without slowing down, he let go of the handlebar with both hands to type her number into his phone.
“I thought that was so cool,” Jorgensen said. “I thought he was the coolest person ever.”
Dinner at Café Hollander led to dessert at Starbucks, and soon the two athletes were dating.
The relationship proved complicated, however, as they had vastly different training and competition schedules.
In August 2011, Jorgensen surprised even herself by qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics, less than two years after completing her first triathlon. When she returned to her hotel, she checked her computer and saw that she had dozens of congratulatory messages from her friends and family. But none from Lemieux.
It turned out that Lemieux had a race of his own that weekend, and was not yet aware that Jorgensen had made the Olympic team.
“I still give him a hard time for it,” Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen had a disappointing experience at the 2012 Olympics, finishing 38th after suffering a flat tire on the bicycle portion of the competition. But she showed her potential in other races that year, finishing second at the 2012 World Triathlon Grand Final.
Lemieux believed she could get even better.
He concluded that she performed her best when he was available to coordinate all of the pre-race logistics, allowing her to focus her energy exclusively on the competition.
“Nothing I do is that special,” Lemieux said, “but it adds up.”
In early 2013, after winning more than a dozen domestic cyclo-cross and criterium races, Lemieux decided to end his professional cycling career to dedicate himself full-time to helping Jorgensen.
“It was not that hard of a decision,” Lemieux said. “I knew I would be a better caretaker than I would ever be a cyclist.”
Lemieux revealed his intentions to Jorgensen during a paella dinner after her fourth-place finish at a race in Madrid. He was scheduled to fly back to the United States for his own race but changed his plane ticket to remain with Jorgensen.
“That was very shocking for me,” Jorgensen said. “I didn’t know what to say.”
They were not even engaged at the time.
Lemieux proposed later in 2013 after they returned to their offseason home. He invited Jorgensen on a bicycle ride during the first big snowfall of the year in St. Paul. As they approached the Ford Parkway Bridge, Lemieux slowed to ask Jorgensen if she wanted to take a picture. They both dismounted from their bikes, and Lemieux got down on one knee. Jorgensen was so surprised that she took a step backwards and slipped and fell on the ice.
“That was the happiest I’ve ever been,” Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen never had a desire to travel for business.
When she was a public accountant, she had the choice of pursuing a career in either audit or taxation. She picked taxation without any hesitation. Tax accountants tend to stay in the same office, while auditors travel to the offices of different clients.
Now she spends less than three months per year in her St. Paul apartment.
“I struggle being away from home,” Jorgensen said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to do this without [Lemieux].”
Lemieux packs six bags for the couple every year around New Year’s Eve. He reserves half of the bags for bicycles — two for Jorgensen and one for himself — and then stuffs all of their necessary belongings in the remaining three suitcases.
One year, the couple was leaving Minnesota when the temperature was 10 degrees below zero. Knowing that it would be 95 degrees Fahrenheit when they landed in Wollongong, Australia, they decided not to bring their winter jackets. They arrived at the airport shivering with six large bags.
“It’s a chore,” Lemieux said. “Everybody points at us.”
The couple chases warm weather with Jorgensen’s training group, the Wollongong Wizards. They rent a furnished apartment in Australia from January to May, and then move to Vitoria, Spain until the World Triathlon Series season ends in September.
Food preparation is arguably Lemieux’s most important job. When they travel to races, Lemieux turns the couple’s hotel room into his own kitchen. He insists on packing his own knives, cutting board and rice cooker. He gathers food from a local grocery store and uses his rice cooker to prepare everything from meat to vegetables to quinoa.
“I think Patrick should make a book about all the different meals you can make with a rice cooker,” Jorgensen said.
During the season, Lemieux shops at a grocery store six days per week. He is on a first-name basis with the cashiers, and familiar with the local customs. In Spain, he makes sure to get to the grocery store before it closes for the midday siesta.
After serving Jorgensen her morning oats, Lemieux transitions to preparing lunch, which usually consists of rice with meat and vegetables, followed by a piece of dark chocolate, a staple for Jorgensen after every meal. Lemieux looks at his watch often, knowing his wife will return home from her swim workout at 12:30 p.m.
“Lunch needs to be on the table immediately,” Lemieux said. “She is hungry.”
Jorgensen is grateful that lunch is served so soon after her morning swim. This allows her to relax and stay off of her feet for several hours until her next workout at 4:00 p.m.
“I don’t do anything when I’m training, besides emails and sleeping,” said Jorgensen, who believes that she went to the grocery store only once or twice during the 2015 season.
Not all triathletes are as fortunate.
Many of Jorgensen’s rivals spend this critical recovery period between workouts shopping at the grocery store, cooking lunch and cleaning dishes.
Both of Jorgensen’s top U.S. competitors are married to elite athletes with demanding training schedules of their own. Sarah True, who finished fourth at the 2012 Olympics, is married to U.S. distance runner Ben True. Katie Zaferes is married to fellow U.S. triathlete Tommy Zaferes.
“If [Ben] were able to just focus on my career, I would be in a better position,” Sarah said. “But we have to make the best of the situation that we have. I love the fact that he’s ambitious and this incredible athlete, but we both realize that it makes it more challenging.”
Jorgensen earned more than $200,000 in prize money in 2015, and is sponsored by around a dozen companies, including ASICS, Ernst & Young and Red Bull.
Yet when she returns to St. Paul in September, she and Lemieux live above a bike shop in a cozy two-bedroom, 800-square-foot apartment that also houses 10 bicycles and an ever-growing collection of trophies.
“For now, it’s great for what we’re doing,” Jorgensen said. “But we probably need to get a little more storage.”
The offseason is when Lemieux takes a break from his responsibilities.
Jorgensen plans an annual three-day “Eatcation” for her husband. The rules are simple: all nine meals must be eaten in a different restaurant that they have never tried before. Jorgensen spends hours reading online reviews to plan the annual tradition, which has taken the couple to San Francisco and Vancouver.
“Anytime we go out to eat,” Lemieux said, “I’m thankful.”
He even lets Jorgensen do the cooking. Jorgensen described her ideal offseason day as going to a farmers’ market after her morning run to collect fresh ingredients to cook a new recipe.
“She really is a good cook,” Lemieux said. “She just doesn’t do it that often.”
That will change, insists Jorgensen, who is 29 years old. She plans on sharing the responsibility with Lemieux, 28, when her professional triathlon career ends.
The couple claims that since they have been so singularly focused on the 2016 Rio Olympics, they do not know when their nomadic lifestyle will come to an end. But they do know the next stage of their life will involve spending more than just the fall in Minnesota.
“This lifestyle is a lot of work, but it’s a choice we made,” Lemieux said. “We will have plenty of days back home together in St. Paul.”