When Gwen Jorgensen joined EY in the Milwaukee office in 2010, she had never competed in a triathlon. In fact, she had never even thought about it. Today, Gwen is a two-time World Triathlon Champion and considered by many to be a favorite for gold in the upcoming Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Athletics have always featured prominently in Gwen’s life. She “grew up swimming and rowing” in her hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin, with dreams of competing in the Olympics. She swam for the University of Wisconsin-Madison but admits she was not a standout. “I realized the best I was ever going to be was second to last,” she says good-naturedly. Still, her love of the sport kept her at it.
During her junior year, just when she felt she had achieved her swimming potential, Gwen started running. And that’s when she hit her stride (no pun intended): “I had immediate success,” she remarks. She soon became an NCAA All-American in cross-country and track.
A different kind of career track
Despite her passion for athletics, as graduation neared, Gwen “never really considered doing sport” after college. So she studied for her CPA, interned with EY and joined the firm. “I thought: this is what I want to do … l love this.” But then she got an unexpected telephone call.
The call was from USA Triathlon, a member federation of the U.S. Olympic Committee and national governing body for triathlon in the United States.
Gwen recalls the conversation this way: USA Triathlon: “Hey, we think you’d be good at triathlon. ”Gwen (laughing): “You guys are nuts. I’ve never even ridden a bike. I’ve got a great job with EY, and this is what I want to do. ”USA Triathlon: “Well, why don’t you just do triathlon on the side and see if you like it.
”Always one to accept a challenge", Gwen went to Mark Hellmer, her then-boss at EY in Milwaukee and now Tax Market Segment Leader for the Chesapeake (Greater DC) area, to talk about her unique opportunity. It so happened that Mark had competed in a few triathlons in his day, and his daughter, Jasmine, age 11 at the time, was a highly competitive swimmer with Olympic aspirations of her own.
Mark knew that Gwen was a collegiate swimmer and All-Big Ten runner, so they had chatted occasionally about swimming and competitiveness. After Gwen explained her situation to Mark, the two came up with a flexible work arrangement that would allow Gwen to train and occasionally travel to compete.
As time went on and Gwen kept winning, she steadily had to reduce her EY hours. In 2011, she qualified for a spot on the United States National Triathlon Team for the 2012 Olympics. It was clear to both of them, Mark says, that EY would no longer be Gwen’s primary focus.
Gwen, whom Mark calls “as good a person as she is an athlete,” was nervous about leaving EY. “I remember telling her, ‘Your window for competing as a triathlete is very small compared to your window of opportunity as a CPA — you’ve got to do this,’” he adds.
A deflating experience
Since that time, Gwen has entered more than 35 triathlons around the world — and has won most of them, including finishing first in 17 of her last 20 races.
In her test race for the 2012 Olympics in London, Gwen placed second. “So I went in thinking, ‘I have a legitimate shot at getting a medal,’” she says. But it wasn’t meant to be. During the cycling portion of the race, Gwen ran over a piece of glass, puncturing her tire.
Race rules require participants to fix their own flats — unassisted. “I went from the head of the pack to nearly last place,” she reflects. She finished 38th out of 55. While the setback was a huge disappointment, it lit a new fire in Gwen: gold in Rio in 2016.
And she’s been in full attack mode ever since. These days, Gwen trains nine months of the year: from January to May in Australia and from May to August in Spain. On the day of her interview with us, it was Sunday in Australia. Gwen had just finished a 90-minute run, after which she was planning “a little gym work and some physio.” Sundays, she explains, are her “light days.” Right.
Running with purpose: the lesson of the stonecutter
Despite Gwen’s dominance of the sport, she’s quick to point out her struggles. “I have hard days. I have workouts that I fail a lot of times. I’m not a super-human person.”
To make her point, Gwen tells about a recent training drill. It involved biking uphill while spinning her legs at a particular speed and generating a certain amount of power. “I did it over and over,” she says, “and every time, I failed — six weeks in a row. It was awful. I got to the top of the hill, and I was basically in tears.”
Sensing her frustration, Gwen’s coach, Jamie Turner, asked her to consider the stonecutter. “He said to me, ‘When you’re a stonecutter, you’re chipping away at this huge piece of rock. And maybe you do it a hundred times, but it’s not until the hundred and first that something actually happens. Do you think it’s that hundred and first time that actually made a difference? Or is it those hundred times leading up to it that allowed you to achieve it on that hundred and first?’”
Gwen says she thinks about that story every day. “You know, I may not always have the outcome I want, but I know if I’m doing something with intent — with a purpose — I’ll be able to achieve what I set out to do.”
Building a healthier working world
One of Gwen’s greatest satisfactions is learning that she’s been an inspiration to others. Following a recent race, a woman ran up to Gwen. “She was nearly hysterical, but wanted to tell me that one day she was watching TV — just flipping the channels — and happened to see my first win.”
The woman went on to say that, although she hadn’t been active before, Gwen’s victory inspired her to get moving. The woman now runs 10 miles a day and has entered several triathlons.
“I realized that I really have an impact on other people, and I can help people lead a healthy, active lifestyle,” says Gwen. To that end, she’s established the Gwen Jorgensen Scholarship, with the intent of helping junior triathletes “get involved in sport and pursue excellence.”
For her own inspiration, Gwen looks to her competitors (many of whom she trains with and who are among her closest friends); her trainer, Jamie; and husband, Patrick, a former pro cyclist who “gave up his cycling career and does all the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry and just everything, so all I need to focus on is training, recovery and the triathlon.”
Accounting for athletics
While it’s not often you hear the words “accountant” and “triathlete” in the same sentence, Gwen points out that both require hard work, discipline, having a schedule and being organized. And, according to Gwen, if not for her time at EY, her future could have been very different.
“I was fully committed to doing EY, to being an accountant, and I was very hesitant to start in triathlon,” she says. “It was an unknown. I wouldn’t be making any money. It was just a huge risk for me and very scary.”
Without the encouragement, support and flexibility offered by Mark Hellmer and EY, Gwen does not believe she would be the world-class athlete she is today. “That’s pretty unique and special and something I am very grateful for.”
The network is also for business professionals who would like to support these women, as well as elite athletes who would also like to participate as advisors.
Did you know that girls who play sports are more likely to graduate from college, find a job and be employed in male-dominated industries? With this in mind, EY created the Women Athletes Business Network — an online community designed to inspire, open doors and make connections for career-minded female athletes who aspire to be leaders outside of their sport. We believe elite female athletes represent an often untapped leadership pipeline — and we all know the world needs more women leaders.
The network is open to current or retired female athletes who have competed at any of the following levels:
EY is an Official Supporter and exclusive provider of professional services to the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee. Currently, more than 200 people in the EY Brazil offices are hard at work providing extensive support to the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee. EY is also a sponsor of Belgium’s and the Netherlands’ national Olympic Committees and teams.
As part of EY’s support, we’ve created the Olympic Legacy Volunteer Program, a skills-based program designed to leverage our Olympic sponsorships to create a positive legacy within the communities of Rio de Janeiro. For the past six years, and up until the Rio 2016 Games, hundreds of EY professionals have come not only to work on hundreds of projects for the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, but to continue to deliver value to the communities of Rio after the games.
The Olympic Legacy Volunteer Program connects EY professionals with Brazilian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to work virtually on local business projects. Following the virtual teaming, the EY volunteers will travel to Rio to visit and work directly with the NGOs. To thank them for their time and energy, the participating EY professionals will also be given the opportunity to attend the Rio 2016 Games.
Being a supporter of a major global event like Rio 2016 is a unique and exciting opportunity for EY. We believe that our involvement in Rio 2016, and particularly our volunteer program, will engage our people, bring us closer to our Vision 2020 goals and help to build a better working world throughout Brazil.
By combining our Rio 2016 participation with our values of diversity and inclusiveness and commitment to entrepreneurship, it’s easy to see how our association with Rio 2016 is tailor-made to affirm our strengths.
In our Fall 2015 issue (Vol. 7, No. 2), we reported that 61-year-old former tax partner, Chicago Alumni Council member and cancer survivor Lee Harkleroad was in Hawaii, training for his 14th Ironman event. We’re pleased to report here that Lee finished the race in 15 hours, 33 minutes — his best time ever.
Since then, Lee has finished first in his age group in an Ironman event in the Philippines, which qualifies him for the Ironman World Championship, scheduled for next September in Mooloolaba, Queensland, Australia. An Ironman triathlon is considerably longer than the Olympics version, consisting of a 2.4-mile rough-water swim, immediately followed by a 112-mile bike race, then by a 26.2-mile marathon.
Lee competes to raise awareness of Folds of Honor, a nonprofit that provides educational scholarships to military families of those who have been killed or wounded in service. He works closely with his good friend and fellow former EY tax partner Steve Haworth, who cofounded the Chicago chapter of the organization and serves on the national board.
In February, the National Football League hosted its first NFL Women’s Summit, “In the Huddle to Advance Women in Sport.” The event featured a diverse group of sports figures and leaders, including Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, Pattie Sellers, Annika Sorenstam and Jordin Sparks, who came together to reinforce the significance of sports in developing future leaders and to support girls’ participation in athletics.
Among the speakers was Beth Brooke-Marciniak, EY’s Global Vice Chair — Public Policy and the first woman to be awarded a basketball scholarship by Purdue University. To learn more about the NFL Women’s Summit, visit the website at www.nflwomenssummit.com.