A Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold

Go, Gwen, Go: A Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold (Meyer & Meyer Sport), co-authored by Gwen Jorgensen’s mother Nancy and sister Elizabeth, chronicles the family’s experience as Gwen left her job as a CPA to pursue and ultimately win Olympic gold in triathlon. We asked Nancy and Elizabeth, both teachers, a few questions.


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What compelled you to write the book? When did you decide to do it?

Nancy: When USA Triathlon first recruited Gwen, she told them she wasn’t interested. Gwen was a standout runner, but a poor collegiate swimmer and she had never owned a road bike. USA Triathlon eventually convinced her to train and then within two years, she qualified for the Olympics. After suffering a flat tire in London 2012, she announced her intent to win gold in Rio. We thought her path to success was unique and that it could be an inspiring story. That’s when we started writing about our family’s experience with her Olympic journey.

Elizabeth: I tell my high school creative writing students to scour their lives for dramatic moments, emotional scenes or frightening experiences and to write their own stories. I tell them if they write well, a publisher may want to share their stories with the world. When my sister qualified for the 2012 Olympic Games, suffered a flat tire, and proclaimed her goal to win gold in 2016, I took my own advice. But the tale was so big I needed a book. I partnered with my mom, Nancy Jorgensen, who had published two books in the field of choral education (From the Trenches: Real Insights from Real Choral Educators and Things They Never Taught You in Choral Methods).

You both have strong writing styles and careers. How did you decide to team up and do a book in two voices and with two opinions? Why about Gwen?

Elizabeth: Some of my earliest memories are of Mom writing on a yellow notepad. She published her first books when I was a teenager; and during high school and college (I was a journalism major at Marquette University), she was my go-to editor. I enjoyed learning from her and having her point to places where my writing could improve. When I graduated and began teaching writing in the same school where Mom taught choir, I returned the favor and proofread her work (concert flyers, playbills). She retired a few years later and continued to write; naturally, we continued our partnership. After Gwen qualified for the 2012 Olympic Games, going from average accountant to world-class athlete, we wanted to share our family’s story. Because of our different perspectives, we decided to alternate the memoir between us, sharing what it’s like for both sister and mom. We joined a writers’ group and began polishing our memoir. Gwen assisted us with interviews, fact-checks, and suggestions. The process brought us together—we collaborated daily … writing, editing, polishing. The result is a family story we are excited to share with the world.

How can you see other teachers using Go, Gwen, Go in their classrooms?

Elizabeth: I see Go, Gwen, Go having a place in sports literature or modern literature classes—or any class that highlights diverse voices. This is a story written from the perspective of two women (from different generations) cheering on another woman. It is a story that emphasizes all dreams are possible if you set goals, surround yourself with supportive people, and work consistently each day. As teachers, we try to find high interest reading materials to engage even the most reluctant readers. In this story, students will enter the secret world of Olympic training, professional coaching, international travel, sponsor funding, anti-doping requirements, athlete nutrition, and sports physiotherapy. This book takes readers inside the personal life of a professional athlete, complete with family crises and holiday celebrations. In this inspiring story, students will see how one family grew together, from average to Olympian.

Elizabeth and Nancy Jorgensen

Elizabeth and Nancy Jorgensen

What part of Gwen’s career have you most admired? What have you worried about?

Nancy: Every time Gwen competed in a triathlon, I was terrified the minute she got on her bike. At first, I didn’t realize how common crashes are. But once I saw her go down a few times, I couldn’t watch that part of the race. When we streamed events from home, I just listened to the bike portion and distracted myself by cleaning the kitchen or doing other odd jobs. Once she got off the bike, I returned to the screen and watched the run leg. Gwen’s approach to the bike is also one of the things I admire. She knew nothing about cycling and did not own a bike. She had to learn a brand new sport—and master it within a very short time—and then perform at the elite level.

When Gwen was growing up and on the swim team and then on the track and field team, how, as a big sister, did you guide her and what did you see in her that may have helped you in your own career?

Elizabeth: Gwen went from average accountant to world and Olympic champion. But it didn’t happen overnight or in a linear fashion. When she was a freshman in high school, I was a senior. My track and field coach was the one who convinced her (with my encouragement) to run. I have always been Gwen’s biggest fan: in the pool, on the track, in triathlon. No matter how small or large the stage, I’m cheering as loudly as I can. I want her to win, but that’s not really why I cheer. What I’m happiest about is how Gwen’s career has created a community of friends and family. We are all on TEAM GWEN. Watching her set and publicly declare her goals has inspired me. I’ve learned from Gwen and her husband Patrick that the only way to reap large rewards is to take large risks. Writing this book was a dream; Gwen setting lofty goals and using daily practice to improve her craft encouraged Mom and me to do the same with this memoir.

The book includes themes of music and food. Why did you think those were important to add?

Elizabeth: Gwen and I grew up playing violin, Mom accompanying us on the piano. Although Gwen and I didn’t love music as much as sport, it taught us dedication, grit, and the daily practice skills necessary for success in any undertaking. Our childhood was built on music and food. Our gatherings start with everyone in the kitchen—we learned early how to delegate, give clear directions, collaborate. We also learned how to celebrate and share in the rewards of our labor. Our story would not be complete without both food and music.

Several athletes have tried multiple sports and multiple games. How is Gwen’s training going and what is she doing now? Is her goal a 2020 pursuit or a 2024 pursuit?

Nancy: So much is new since Gwen won the Rio race. She transitioned from triathlon to marathon, gave birth, had surgery for Haglund’s deformity, and is now raising a son. I think with all of that she learned to take the journey one day at a time. She trusts her coaches and other team members to monitor her progress and advise her on next steps. We no longer ask when her next race will be or what the long- term plan is because she taught us those things will be determined with time and training. 

For more information about Go, Gwen, Go: A Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold, visit lizjorgensen.weebly.com and nancyjorgensen.weebly.com.

Closing the Gap: A Student Project

by Keith Brayman
AP Macroeconomics, River Bluff High School

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In March 2017, I sat down with my principal, Dr. Luke Clamp and said, “I want my kids to write a book and I want them to present their findings to the United Nations.” His reply is what all educators pray for. “Let’s make it happen. Let me know what I can do to help you get there.” That conversation was exactly what I needed and gave me the energy to embark on a journey with my students that would span a calendar year and include a nearly 400-page publication.

I assigned the first of many tasks to be completed over the summer break. I really wanted my students to select a country that they had personal ties to because that would give them ownership over their work, as this would be a long process. In fact, one piece of feedback that I got from a student was that they wished they had chosen a country more dear to them. Having that connection would also make this case study a labor of love and not merely labor. 

Once they had chosen their country of interest, they were to visit the United Nations site regarding developing nations and the Human Development Index. I chose this index as our starting place so that students would not only have a basis of comparison against other developing nations, but also to have sound data that they could refer back to over time. I had them compile their country’s data onto a spreadsheet, which we aggregated on the first day of school. It was very important to me that they realized the gap between industrialized nations and the developing world. Needless to say, it didn’t take long.

After that stage, it became a process of “we,” and not “I.” I thought that I had planned for every contingency possible, but I was wrong. Like, really, really wrong. The stage between compiling data and writing the first part of their research had some significant speed bumps. My students began to show that they had taken ownership of their research and were quickly becoming more knowledgeable about their specific countries than I was and I was constantly playing catch-up. Honestly, this was a great problem to have. 

Their first piece of writing was due just before the Christmas break—the history of the government and economic system for each country. I was blown away. The writing was fantastic. There was a definite realization from me that moving forward was going to be challenging. But, I feel the need to back up a bit. Closing in on the due date for their research, students began to come to me to express concerns about the clarity of what I wanted in their writing. I was taken aback. Hadn’t I explained it well? It was written clearly, or so I thought. 

What I had excluded from my planning was to ensure that there were enough checkpoints for my students to ask questions and gain the clarity that they needed. So we talked, a lot. Again, my students surprised me with their maturity and their ability to approach me with questions and concerns. There was even a point that I considered ending the case study with the research papers. Another testament to the level of students is that they shot that idea down nearly before I finished explaining my reasoning. They wanted to continue. I am so happy that they did. We worked together to ensure that they had all of the information that they needed to move forward and we were set for, in my opinion, one of the most meaningful semesters of their school careers.

Once back from the break, we shifted our focus to finding ways for our countries to move forward, to enhance the standard of living, and/or to generally make life more manageable for business to be successful. To be clear, my students were tasked with developing economic plans to move their countries further toward development. I had hoped that we would follow the rules and laws that are in my curriculum for our AP Macroeconomics class. We quickly outgrew them. The entry-level Economics formulas that we planned on using weren’t equipped to handle the data that my students wanted to adjust in their plans. This was the ninth or tenth time that I found myself on the struggle bus. Luckily, my students are brilliant and we were able to work together to ensure that we were using the correct formulas and that their calculations were correct. Difficulty came in situations where a country was in financial crisis and the news and data were changing by the minute. It truly was amazing to watch them work within very specific parameters while still thinking outside the box. 

Nearing the conclusion of the school term, it was a mad dash to finalize ideas and calculations. I became clear that the students weren’t procrastinating, but that they wanted their best work published. They owned their writing. They owned their work. They want you to read their best piece. Hopefully you will have the opportunity to read their findings and their plans for development. It is an amazing piece of student writing.

A message to any teachers who are contemplating publishing their students’ work: Do it! It will be one of the most meaningful pieces of work they will ever complete. 

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