RIO DE JANEIRO — It came down to a dare in the headwinds, a bit of verbal jockeying by elite triathletes at a moment when mere mortals would have been too gassed for banter.
Two-time world champion and pre-race favorite Gwen Jorgensen of the United States knew she wouldn’t win on reputation alone. A flat tire derailed her chances in the Olympic triathlon in London four years ago. On Saturday, she found herself rounding into the bell lap with defending champion Nicola Spirig of Switzerland. The two women hadn’t been on the same course since that day in 2012.
The 34-year-old Spirig fought to get to the start on Copacabana Beach after a bike crash in early March. She raced with three plates and 23 screws in her surgically repaired left hand. She had helped make it a two-woman race with aggressive, multiple attacks during the bike leg.
Now, with no other athletes within realistic striking distance, the front runners had a short discussion.
“No one wanted to lead,” Spirig said. “I was like, ‘Come on, we share the work.’ And she said, ‘No, I was leading before.’ I said, ‘I was leading over there.’
“It was just some mental games. I had to try everything to get her out of the rhythm a bit.”
It didn’t work. “She said, ‘I already have a medal,’ ” Jorgensen said. “And it’s fair enough. Now she has two and I still only have one.”
Jorgensen has the color she wants — the gold she won by 40 seconds in 1 hour 56 minutes 16 seconds as she pulled away in the stretch, taking the first-ever Olympic triathlon title by a U.S. athlete. Her pursuit compelled her to search out a coach on the other side of that world and to train with group of young, hungry Australians who refer to her as “grandma” because she is 30 years old and consistently early to bed.
Even as her honors and her aura expanded over the last few seasons – two world championships, 17 World Triathlon Series wins and an undefeated 2015 – Rio remained the big, flashing object on her radar.
Jorgensen had controlled all that she could control. She won the test event held on the same course a year ago. and she was not about to let her feet betray her. She allowed herself a smile as she bore down on the finishing arch and hit the tape with her face awash in relief, followed by a few tears.
She credited her husband, Patrick Lemieux, and Kiwi coach Jamie Turner, saying “It’s as much their medal as it is mine.”
“I’ve said for four years that this was my goal,” Jorgensen said, with just the slightest hitch in her voice. “August 20th. I wanted to cross that line, I wanted to get a gold medal. It’s pretty incredible that I was actually able to do it. Four years comes down to one day. To be able to perform on the day is something pretty amazing.”
Jorgensen’s quest combined long-held Olympic ambition, the methodical mind of a certified public accountant, a multi-sport background at the University of Wisconsin and fearsome closing speed in the 10-kilometer run.
Swimming was her first love, and when she was tapped by USA Triathlon college talent scout Barb Lindquist, “I kind of laughed at them,” Jorgensen said. “I just felt like I didn’t have what it took, I’m not good enough.
“(Lindquist) said, ‘On paper, you could be an Olympian.’ I just didn’t believe that, and actually when I qualified for my first Olympics in 2012, it was a complete shock to me. I’m just really thankful that I’ve had those people to believe in me throughout the way and encourage me along the way, because without them I wouldn’t be doing triathlon.”
Great Britain’s Vicky Holland saw Jorgensen’s kick from a familiar vantage point.
“To watch Gwen in full flight, usually from behind, is quite something,” said Holland, who outsprinted teammate Non Stanford for the bronze medal. “I think even today when I was watching the two of them duke it out in front, I could see they were running together for a long time before Gwen edged away.
“It’s almost inevitable. I’ve seen it in so many races. When Gwen is gone, it’s very hard to get her back again, and I think that’s been shown time and time again. On the most important day and the most important stage, Gwen did it today.”
Jorgensen’s U.S. teammate Katie Zaferes finished 18th in 2:00:55.
New Hampshire’s Sarah True, fourth in London, had a different kind of heartache Saturday as she tweaked her right quadriceps during the swim and had to abandon during the bike leg. Initial reports that she had crashed were incorrect. “My leg seized up at the start of the bike,” she posted on her Twitter feed. “While I fought to ride as long as I could, I had to pull out.”
In an online note to ESPN.com, True wrote, “No matter how we try to ignore it, there’s always an element of luck to sport and I was just on the wrong side today.”