The Journey from MYSO to Olympic Gold

by Ron Oshima

Photo courtesy of U.S. Olympic Committee.

Composer, computer scientist, educator, lawyer, musician, physician, recording engineer…these are some of the careers that MYSO alumni typically pursue. Olympic Gold medalist never appears on that list…but it eventually did for Gwen Jorgensen, Olympic Gold winner in the triathlon in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Gwen became the first American triathlete, man or woman, to win an Olympic Gold medal. I had the chance to speak with Gwen’s sister Liz, and mother Nancy, about this incredible journey.

Liz Jorgensen graduated in 2001 from Senior Symphony as a violist, while her sister Gwen graduated in 2004 as a violinist in Senior Symphony. Their mother, Nancy, who taught high school choir for 30 years, decided that the girls would do at least one musical instrument and one sport.

How did you hear of MYSO and why did you get the kids involved in MYSO?

Nancy: I started the girls very young in the Suzuki Project Create program at Carroll College. It seemed that the natural progression then was to take private lessons to be the best you could be. Once you got past beginner and private lessons, I thought MYSO was the top organization to be in if you’re a student musician.

What are some of the most memorable lessons you learned at MYSO that helped shape who you are today?

Liz: I remember being challenged musically in rehearsals in a way that I wasn’t anywhere else. The expectation was higher. The conductors always had well-thought out plans for how to shape the music. I have fond memories of just goofing off, of being silly on breaks, making up little songs…we had this little group that really connected.

One of my best memories was when we went to the National Youth Orchestra Festival in Sarasota, Florida, and worked under Ben Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. He gave us so many awesome life lessons throughout that trip. He talked about being a leader, no matter where you are. You can lead from the last chair or first chair of the viola section. Each person plays their role. And that was formative.

Nancy, as a parent, how did you see your daughters develop as they progressed through MYSO?

Nancy: Gwen, who won the Olympic gold medal, has this philosophy where she tries to be average every day. On the day of the race at the Olympics (2016), we were nervous, and Gwen was calm. Liz asked Gwen’s husband, ‘Geez, how do you guys do this?’ He replied, ‘she just has to have an average day. She’s done everything she needs to do in practice. And now she just needs to replicate that.’ And I think back to those lessons of music where it’s rare to have a spectacular day. It usually is small progress day after day. Just put the time in. And after a while, all that effort you put in, by getting better and better just a little bit each day, ends up with what you hope is a better result. And I think, looking back, some of her practice habits in sports are lessons she learned in music.

So an average day means you’re working hard, you’re putting in the hours, you’re acutely conscious of what you are doing, and you’re making an effort. And if that becomes habit, then all those good habits become average. And average just keeps getting better and better.

Liz: The other thing I was thinking about is that at MYSO you surround yourself with other people who are trying to do the same thing as you, and you feel like you’re part of a team. That is the same thing that Gwen and I have done throughout our lives. Whatever we take on, we surround ourselves with people who are going to help make us better.

Through research, we’ve found that when the kids initially come to MYSO, the motivation is usually external –whether it be a parent or a teacher. But after they stick with MYSO for a while, all the motivation, energy, and drive start to come from within – it’s internalized.  Can you comment on that?

Nancy: To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I got Gwen to buy into MYSO as much as I wanted. She was obsessed with swimming back then, but as parents, we wanted her to be more well-rounded. The irony is now that she has a two-year old, Stanley, they attend a live music event every Wednesday. And whenever we travel to Portland, Oregon, she wants me to bring my melodica and play songs with him.

Gwen: [email response] Stanley naturally loves music. He loves playing my mom’s melodica and going to a local Portland children’s music performer, Mr. Ben. He intensely watches, trying to learn when he is introduced to a new instrument.  I’ve been surprised at how quickly he learned to play the melodica, drums, and piano. It has been such a joy to watch his love for music grow. I would like to guide Stanley to play an instrument and a sport as he continues to grow, just as my parents encouraged me.

Liz and Nancy have written a book about Gwen’s Olympic odyssey, Go, Gwen, Go: A Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold (Amazon) with a prologue by Gwen. The book was released in October 2019 by Meyer & Meyer Sport.  Gwen has switched to the marathon event and is currently training for the Olympic qualifying trials in Atlanta, Georgia, on Feb. 29, 2020, where the top three finishers qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

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