“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m living this amazing life.”
At the 2018 XTERRA World Championship in Maui, Penny Slater said she was just happy to have a seat at the table. Granted, that table included three-time XTERRA World Champions Lesley Paterson and Melanie McQuaid, European Tour Champions like Carina Wasle, Brigitta Poor, and Renata Bucher, and USA Champ Suzie Snyder, alongside a host of other all-stars.
“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m living this amazing life,” said the 22-year-old.
“If you’d asked me four years ago if I would ever be a professional athlete, I probably would have said you were dreaming. I just see those girls who have been doing this this for years and have a wealth of experience and I can’t believe I am competing against them, let alone coming close to them. It’s such a privilege to be able to race with the best in the world.”
Her happy go lucky attitude and humility don’t change the fact that the Aussie-born Slater is also a force to be reckoned with. She is, after all, the reigning XTERRA Asia-Pacific Tour Champion following a breakout season that included seven top six finishes, a pair of runner-up performances in the Philippines, her second straight ITU Cross Tri U23 World Championship title, and a top 10 performance at XTERRA Worlds.
“Come race day in Maui, when I saw the swell coming in, I was practically rubbing my hands together with glee,” she said. “I knew the bike was going to be tough due to the muddy conditions, but I was confident I could handle it.”
Unlike many athletes from Australia and New Zealand, Slater didn’t grow up on the beach. Instead, her edge comes from her own mental toughness. From the ages of five until 17, she rode horses and played hockey. She was talented enough at both to represent Australia at the national level as an equestrienne and hockey player when she was 15 and 16. And if that wasn’t enough, she was also on her high school’s track and cross-country teams.
“I’ve always loved sport and was encouraged to be active by my parents on our farm,” said Slater. “I played on basically any sporting team I could get into during high school.”
When she was 17, one of her hockey teammates convinced her to join the local triathlon novice program in 2013.
“It’s safe to say I looked strange on a bike and practically sank when I swam,” laughed Slater. “My first triathlon was a complete disaster as I got a time penalty for not dismounting quickly enough and my cleats came unscrewed from my bike shoes, so I had to ride the whole course barefoot.”
Little did Slater know, that experience of riding barefoot would come in handy. At XTERRA Worlds, she came out of the water with the second swim pack, then went to work on the tricky mountain bike course.
“Once we got on the bike, I could see a couple of the other girls on the road ahead and decided to ride my own race. I settled into a rhythm for the first hour trying to make it up the climbs with enough left in the tank for the flat and downhill sections where I knew I could make up time. When I turned into the last 7K of single track, I was in sixth position, and knew I could move up to fifth if I gunned it.”
What happened instead was that mud got into the Velcro of her mountain bike shoes, so every time she had to get off her bike to clean her gears, she had to walk barefoot so she didn’t lose her shoes. And then, her gears got so jammed with mud that she couldn’t turn her crank.
“I got off and desperately tried to clear gunk out of my chain,” remembers Slater. “Eventually, I just started running barefoot alongside of my bike. I thought I was going to have to DNF, but my parents had come all the way from Australia to watch, so that wasn’t an option.”
Slater soldiered on and came into T2 in 11th place, carrying her bike shoes.
“I felt pretty deflated at the time but thought, ‘You can still make the top 10’ so I used all my angst and ran as hard as I could.”
Slater’s efforts earned her a ninth-place finish in an incredible field. But even more than her top 10 finish, her refusal to give up speaks volumes about her potential for the future.
She is currently a student and balances her 25-hour training weeks with both studying and work. Typically, her day starts at 5:30 AM with an early morning training session. After eating breakfast and heading to class, she fits in another training session before studying or heading to her job.
“I always try to do my harder sessions in the morning as I find it really difficult to do hard training sessions in the afternoon after a big day,” said Slater. “I also try to have two or three days a week when I’m not working or at school so I can fit in some higher volume training sessions of four to six hours and also get a quick power nap.”
When she isn’t training, Slater’s favorite thing to do is to surf.
“Once a year I go for a family surfing holiday with my parents and two sisters and it’s my favorite time of year,” she said. “When I get a chance, I often go out with friends to try new cafes or craft beer places. Let’s be honest – a lot of my social occasions involve eating food.”
Some of Slater’s favorite dishes include miso eggplant and just about anything on the dessert menu.
“There is a Japanese restaurant near my house and their miso eggplant it is to die for,” she said. “Otherwise a good bread and butter pudding during winter hits the spot perfectly.”
As laid back as Slater is, she is laser-focused on her 2019 XTERRA season.
“This year, I hope to defend my XTERRA Asia-Pacific Tour title,” she said. “I also want to try and take a shot at the XTERRA Asia Pacific Championship crown in Kenting as well.”
Slater plans to compete in all the races on the XTERRA Asia-Pacific Tour this year and will also race at the XTERRA European Championship in the Czech Republic in August and XTERRA Worlds in October.
While she is still finding her way, she is doing so with an inspiring amount of enthusiasm and perseverance. And even though she is talented in the water and never gives up on the bike, she is returning to her track and cross-country roots and making the most of her running workouts.
“If you had asked me a year ago what my favorite sport was I would have said cycling,” said Slater. “But now I find that I really love running. I love the improvements I can see as I get fitter throughout the year and as I progress as an athlete. My favorite session of the week is my long run on the trails on Sunday. It gives me so much joy to be out in nature, just cruising along.”