2008 Beijing Olympian Jarrod Shoemaker and 2012 London Olympic qualifier Gwen Jorgensen will headline a day of elite and age-group racing at The Clermont Challenge in Clermont, Fla., this weekend.
Shoemaker founded the event in 2011, when it became the first age-group draft-legal race, giving age-groupers a chance to experience what ITU racing is like.
“I always hear complaints from age groupers about not understanding what the draft legal side of the sport is, so it was cool being able to put that race on [last year],” Shoemaker said.
The men’s age group event is sold out at 75 participants, and the women’s race is hovering at around 55, said Shoemaker, who is also acting as one of the race organizers.
Both Shoemaker and Jorgensen have made Clermont their training base for the winter, and the race this weekend, which will also serve as the Clermont ITU Sprint Triathlon Pan American Cup and offer pros valuable Olympic points, will be the kickoff to their 2012 seasons.
Jorgensen qualified for the London Olympics by finishing second at the U.S.’s first of two Olympic Trials, which took place in August at the ITU’s premier World Championship Series race in London. The unexpected qualification and silver medal catapulted her from an unknown in the sport to a bona fide Olympic medal contender. At the time, Jorgensen was still working part-time as an accountant for Ernst & Young in Milwaukee and had only been competing in triathlon for a little over a year.
Jorgensen took a leave of absence from Ernst & Young to train full-time in Clermont, but she plans to return to Milwaukee and part-time accounting work in May.
“I like having something else in my life,” Jorgensen said.
For Shoemaker, the race this weekend will serve as a good test for what is to come this year, as Shoemaker failed to qualify for the London Olympics at the first Olympic Trials last August. To qualify, he must place in the top nine overall and top two Americans at the World Triathlon Series race in San Diego in May, or be selected as a discretionary pick once the race is over if the team isn’t filled automatically.
“I personally feel like I’m happy I didn’t qualify [for the Olympics already] because it really forced me to look at everything and kind of reevaluate exactly what I was doing, where I was going, and what I wanted in the sport,” Shoemaker said. “And that I feel has actually made me a better athlete and a better person this year.”
Shoemaker, who is one of the fastest runners on the ITU circuit and the only American to have ever won a World Championship Series race, had an off year in 2011. He didn’t place higher than 20th at a World Championship Series race and DNFed in London and at the Grand Final in Beijing.
A series of injuries helped push Shoemaker off course last year, as he suffered a concussion in the World Championship Series race in Hamburg in July after being kicked in the face, and he later learned that his bike crash in London in August, which caused his DNF, resulted in an upper cervical neck strain, which was giving him concussion-like symptoms.
“When I ended up going and seeing a doctor, he said [London] was the one that actually put me over the edge in terms of changing how I was as a person and in training,” Shoemaker said.
After London, Shoemaker says he would go on runs and would only be able to go 10-minute pace and couldn’t make it more than 100 meters in his swims.
Last year’s tribulations caused Shoemaker to have a heart-to-heart with his coaches.
“As an older athlete you start to think you know things and you start to think you have the right direction, and I said to my coaches, you guys tell me what to do, because I’m a good athlete, I understand my body, but I have you guys here for a reason,” Shoemaker said. “I basically gave them the OK to do whatever they wanted to and to push me however they wanted to, and my training has definitely stepped up to the next level, and it’s been fun. It’s been fun to challenge myself instead of being complacent and thinking I already knew everything.”
Shoemaker says he also feels like he’s in a better place mentally, thanks to what he endured last year.
“I’m in better mental shape, physical shape, emotional shape,” Shoemaker said. “Everything is just kind of feeling like it’s in the right place.”
Shoemaker and Jorgensen will both have relatively deep fields to contend with this weekend, as the Pan American Cup will host many top athletes from North America, Great Britain, Japan and other countries. The women’s race will be particularly deep with top ITU athletes such as Ai Ueda of Japan, Jessica Harrison and Carole Peon of France, and Sarah Haskins of the U.S. slated to compete.
Depending on how the race plays out, it could be particularly interesting if a run-off occurs between Jorgensen and Ueda, as they are two of the fastest runners in the sport.