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Zaccardi: Gwen Jorgensen outduels triathlon's most 'unknown' athlete

Jorgensen triathlon in Rio
USA Today Sports/Kirby Lee

Zaccardi: Gwen Jorgensen outduels triathlon's most 'unknown' athlete

Gwen Jorgensen wins after being reminded of heartbreak in duel with defending Olympic champion

RIO DE JANEIRO – As favorite Gwen Jorgensen began the closing 10km run of the Olympic triathlon off Copacabana Beach, one woman out of 17 others in the lead pack dared go with her – Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig.

At one point during their head-to-head run, both women slowed to a jog and exchanged words. Neither wanted to lead. 

Spirig, the defending Olympic champion, spoke up and played her trump card from four years ago.

“I already have a medal, so it’s you that has to work,” she said to Jorgensen, reminding the American of her most painful triathlon memory, a 38th-place finish at the London Olympics.

Jorgensen, the greatest female runner in the 16-year history of Olympic triathlons, then lay the hammer down. She put 40 seconds between her and Spirig in the last mile and a half to become the first U.S. Olympic triathlon champion, capping a dominant two-year stretch that included a 13-race winning streak.

The head to head between the reigning world champion and defending Olympic champion made for incredible theater.

Everyone expected Jorgensen to win. Few knew what to expect out of Spirig. 

“She was probably the most unknown athlete coming in,” Australian veteran Emma Moffatt would say later. “All of us girls have raced many times since London [Olympics in 2012], where I don’t think I’ve raced Nicola once.”

Unknown is an especially weird way to describe the defending Olympic champion. But it was apt for Spirig.

The Swiss, now 34, won gold at the London Games in a photo finish and then disappeared from top-level international Olympic distance races before taking silver behind Jorgensen on Saturday. 

From 2013 through 2015, Spirig gave birth to a boy, ran marathons, even an Ironman triathlon, all while Jorgensen ascended to become one of the most dominant female athletes on the planet.

Going into Rio, Spirig and Jorgensen had not been in the same race since the London Olympics, where Jorgensen crossed the finish line 6 minutes, 46 seconds later after Spirig, her medal hopes punctured by a flat tire on the bike. 

At the time, Jorgensen was still rising in a sport she had taken up two years earlier.

Now at her peak, Jorgensen prevailed for the 16th time in her last 18 top-level international races. But Spirig made her work for it like few before during Jorgensen’s dominant run the last two years. 

“I did everything right,” Spirig said. “[Jorgensen] still won.”

Spirig stayed with the American for the first three of four 2.5km laps and clearly frustrated Jorgensen, drafting off of her most of those four-plus miles. 

Typical Jorgensen, who has made up deficits of more than a minute going into the 10km run in World Triathlon Series events the last two years. She won the race, as expected. But Spirig made the race.

“I haven’t seen anyone running with [Jorgensen] as long as I did today,” Spirig said proudly.

Spirig’s silver was won on the bike leg, with a tactic that fourth-place finisher Non Stanford called clever.

Spirig surprised herself by being in the 18-woman lead group after the opening 1500m swim, where she figured she would struggle.

“I don’t think I expected her to be there right from the start, and that changed the race,” said Swede Lisa Norden, who lost the photo finish to Spirig in 2012 and finished 16th on Copacabana.

Spirig was competing with 23 screws and three plates in her left hand from a bike crash in an Abu Dhabi race March 5, her only other competition this year. 

On the bike Saturday, Spirig put in surge after surge after surge over 40km, including a punishing quarter-mile that featured an elevation rise of about 200 feet. That climb was done eight times.

“The main goal was to make everyone tired,” Spirig said. “I wanted them to get off the bike, everyone with tired legs, because I’m convinced I’m one of the strongest runners running with tired legs, and as you see, I was right.”

Actually, it may have been that strategy that helped Jorgensen win gold. 

The best, maybe only, way to beat Jorgensen is to open up a gap on her during the bike and hold for dear life on the run. That’s how she suffered her only two losses earlier this year since April 2014.

But Spirig’s repetitive moves discouraged the other women from joining her in the front of the pack and trying to ride away from Jorgensen. 

“With all those surges going off the front, why would anyone else work with you if you’re just going to keep attacking us,” bronze medalist Vicky Holland of Great Britain said. “So it ended up with Nicola essentially being on the front the whole time, and then going for a surge, and then sitting back on the front and then going for a surge, which I think, actually, played potentially a little bit more into Gwen’s hands than if we just absolutely drilled the first two laps as a group. I think maybe that would have hurt Gwen more.”

Still, the women in the lead group must have been dumbfounded seeing Spirig control the race.

In her time off, Spirig gave birth to a boy, Yanis, in 2013. 

She ran three marathons between 2014 and 2015, according to Tilastopaja.org. 

A personal best, 2:37:12 in the 2014 European Championships in Zurich, ranked her No. 2 among all Swiss women for the year, No. 333 in the world, and was nearly eight minutes faster than the Olympic marathon qualifying time.

Spirig also won an Ironman on the Mexican island of Cozumel, taking 9 hours, 14 minutes, 7 seconds to complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run. That’s about four times as long as Olympic triathlons.

Many top-level Olympic triathletes compete in Ironmans, but not until ending their Olympic-distance careers. Think German Jan Frodeno, who won gold at the Beijing Games and then won the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, last year.

Spirig returned to the top-level World Series in 2015, placing third in Cape Town and fifth in Stockholm. 

Jorgensen skipped three of the 10 World Series races in 2015. Two of them were Cape Town and Stockholm.  Make of that what you will. 

Then there was the crash and a DNF in Abu Dhabi in March.

So, before Saturday, Spirig had never raced against Jorgensen at Jorgensen’s peak and hadn’t finished a race against anybody since Aug. 22, 2015.

Spirig’s coach called her lack of races against Jorgensen neither an advantage nor a disadvantage.

“We never even thought about that,” Brett Sutton said.

Spirig had of course seen Jorgensen’s legendary running times the last two years. So when they slowed and exchanged testy words, it was all part of the Swiss veteran’s plan.

“It’s just some mental games,” Spirig said. “I know she’s an exceptional runner, so I had to try everything to get her out of the rhythm.”

As Jorgensen and Spirig raced together those first three laps, Sutton knew in his head that Spirig would likely be settling for silver.

“She worked as hard as she could to test Gwen,” he said. “It was just a matter of when Gwen decided to go. …  She tested her, and Gwen came up a champion.”

Spirig said afterward that these Games, her fourth, would probably be her last.

As for Jorgensen, who knows. When she crossed the finish line in 38th place in London, nearly seven minutes after Spirig, she immediately thought about winning gold in Rio.

When she crossed the finish line Saturday, Jorgensen burst into tears. She thought about husband Pat Lemieux, a former pro cyclist who is now Jorgensen’s manager and much more, and of Jamie Turner, her coach since 2013 when she moved to train with a group in Australia.

Gwen Jorgensen’s secret weapon

Cyclist Patrick Lemieux sacrificed his career so his wife, Olympic triathlete Gwen Jorgensen, could be the world's best in hers

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"I've had a four-year plan, and I'm definitely a planner, but I have zero plans for August 21,” Jorgensen said. “So, we’ll wait and find out."

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