Gwen Jorgensen is one of the most accomplished athletes in the world.
Sports have been a constant in her life from an early age. Gwen began swimming competitively at just 8 years old, and then became a high school standout in both swimming and track in her hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Gwen went on to excel in track & field, cross country, and swimming at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — earning All-America honors in running, and qualifying for four straight Big Ten Swimming Championships.
After graduating college in 2009 — and flirting with a career as a tax accountant — Triathlon became an obvious fit. In Gwen’s first competitive triathlon in 2010, she finished as the 2nd amateur (8th overall), and followed that performance with a 2nd place finish in her next event.
The rest is pretty much history.
Gwen dominated the sport of Triathlon for years, becoming World Champion in 2014 and 2015, and winning the gold medal in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
After conquering the Triathlon world, Gwen now has her sights set on winning Olympic gold in the marathon at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
There is no doubt that Gwen is naturally talented, but she also credits food as playing a central role in her career and life. I recently had a chance to talk to Gwen and her mother Nancy about the role that food plays in athletic performance and in their family dynamic overall.
Gwen was a top athlete from an early age, so I wanted to understand how her athletic needs factored into the food that Nancy served at home while Gwen was growing up.
“Looking back, I probably should have thought more about that, and I’m not sure that I did,” Nancy told me. “I think what factored in more than anything was how often she needed to eat.”
Nancy said Gwen would eat breakfast, head off to morning swim practice, and then return home asking for another breakfast. And Gwen would always eat large portions — for example, a three-egg omelet as her second breakfast following a morning swim.
Nancy was a working mom while Gwen and Gwen’s sister Elizabeth were growing up, so convenience was a priority. Nancy remembers relying on her Crock-Pot, thinking about what she could put in first-thing and have ready by the end of the day. The Crock-Pot was great for Italian beef and pulled pork sandwiches, and meat sauce for pasta.
Nancy would also focus on making dinners that would turn into lunch leftovers. For example, she would make extra meat during taco night — enough to wrap up tacos for the kids’ lunches the next day.
Easy-to-make sandwiches were also a fixture — grilled cheese, egg salad, and tuna salad. Gwen’s dad Joel has always loved to grill, so the family would often have pork tenderloin or hamburgers on the grill. And Nancy also admitted that macaroni and cheese and hot dogs were lunch options as well.
One of Gwen’s all-time favorite dishes growing up was a Greek-style pasta salad dish that her mom made. It had olives, artichokes, pepperoni, tomato, and feta cheese. “I always try to get my husband to re-create it, and he just doesn’t do it justice,” said Gwen.
Gwen also remembers her mom’s amazing bread-baking skills. “She makes just such good homemade bread,” Gwen told me. “I always remember having homemade bread at home, whether it be sweet bread or a sourdough.” Nancy was also famous for her homemade pizza crust.
Nutrition knowledge has come a long way since Gwen’s childhood.
Gwen, now 33, says “I do have a better understanding of nutrition, because I have to for my job.”
Gwen’s husband, Patrick, is her full-time chef now. Patrick has worked diligently with professional chefs and nutritionists to craft a meal plan that meets Gwen’s specific needs.
These days, Gwen includes carbs, protein, and vegetables at every meal.
She is always loading her plate with green vegetables, such as broccoli, asparagus, and spinach. Her go-to carb sources are rice and potatoes. And her main proteins are red meat, chicken, organic eggs, and yogurt. She says she eats red meat on a daily basis to ensure her iron levels are high enough.
For breakfast, Gwen has oats with yogurt or milk and berries. Lunch typically consists of veggies and rice, along with a protein. And dinner is potatoes, veggies, a protein, and some sort of salad.
Popular snacks throughout the day include yogurt and granola or berries, and peanut butter and apples. Gwen also likes to have something sweet, eating a small square of dark chocolate after almost every meal (including breakfast!)
While the specific foods and ratios have changed for Gwen over time, many of her good eating habits were formed during childhood.
Growing up, the Jorgensens made a point of always eating meals together. They ate at specific times to keep everyone on a schedule, the TV was off, and they just focused on quality family time.
Now that Gwen has a family of her own — including her almost 2-year-old son Stanley — she still sees family meals as being precious.
“Some of the things that have stayed the same is eating as a family — that’s something that’s really important,” Gwen told me. “I think it’s really good for your health as well to not be eating on the go, and that’s something that my parents always made a priority.”
Gwen has also picked up some of her parenting food philosophy from her mother. Growing up, Gwen might have gotten extra food — or the opportunity to pick the family’s meal one night per week — but she never received a different meal than the rest of the family. All of the Jorgensens ate the same thing, like it or not.
“That’s something I still do with my son — I serve him what I’m eating,” said Gwen. She will sometimes give Stanley a couple options to choose from — for example, an omelet or oats for breakfast — but otherwise he typically eats the same food as Gwen and Patrick.
Nancy is also impressed by the way Gwen has turned Stanley into an independent eater — something Nancy didn’t do as well with her kids. “When our kids were little, we always put a bib on them, and the first 6 months or so, mom or dad handled the spoon, and we mashed up the banana, and fed it to them bite by bite,” confessed Nancy. “I was in control, which I love to be — I am kind of a control freak,” she said laughingly.
But Gwen, on the other hand, has put Stanley in charge of feeding himself from an early age. “It was a real big mess to start, but I think he got a good sense of what food is, and he really enjoys food now,” said Nancy. “I think he gets enjoyment out of it from more than just the taste, but also the independence, and being able to do those things for himself.”
Gwen now lives with her husband and son in Portland, Oregon, and her parents are still in Wisconsin. But Nancy still visits Gwen four or five times per year, and cooks special dishes for Gwen during those trips. Gwen definitely has her favorites.
“I just love her salads and her salad dressings,” says Gwen. “She has a lot of different ideas for dressings, and I think dressings can really jazz up vegetables.”
Nancy said her salad dressings are often very simple — just oil and vinegar, plus one other ingredient. So it could be oil and vinegar and garlic, or oil and vinegar and onion, or oil and vinegar and mustard.
She’ll also research and experiment with other fun dressing combinations — for example, mixing up garlic, hot pepper flakes and lime, or dill and chive with lemon or lime.
Gwen is also a big fan of her mom’s special green beans, made with garlic, butter, red pepper flakes, and lemon. And of course she still can’t resist her mom’s homemade bread.
But food for the Jorgensens is so much more than the individual dishes they eat.
“I think food is the primary way that we bond,” Nancy told me.
In fact, they even gave up exchanging Christmas gifts a long time ago, focusing on making their Christmas meal together instead. They collectively decide on the menu, and even finish it off with a family cookie contest. “Everyone in the family bakes their own cookie and we have that as dessert,” said Gwen. This friendly baking competition has become a family tradition — And it more than makes up for no gifts.
To close our conversation, Gwen perfectly summed up the role that food plays in her life.
“I think it’s really important to focus on food as being a tool for longevity and life,” Gwen told me. We should eat in moderation and we should enjoy what we eat. And not only enjoy the food that we eat, but enjoy the company that we have while we’re eating the food. That’s something that I think is really important for a healthy, long life.”
Her mother has taught her well.
Many of Gwen’s favorite recipes can be found on her YouTube channel.
More information about Gwen’s nutrition, training, family support and her path to Olympic gold is coming in a new memoir, co-authored by Gwen’s mother Nancy and Gwen’s sister Elizabeth. Go, Gwen, Go: A Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold is available for preorder and will be released this October.