Biker turned triathlete, Jens has not followed the common path of a triathlete and doesn’t intend to start any time soon. But as the current leader of the XTERRA World Cup, he does feel ready to step up and become a world class athlete.
Building up to Stop #2 in Oak Mountain, Jens Emil Sloth Nielsen had a single goal in mind: "My goal is to take the lead in the overall World Cup.”
They’re not the words you would expect from an athlete who has not topped a podium in some time, but they are the words of an athlete who trusts in their ability, trusts in their process, and races with the calm consistency that almost guarantees a spot on the podium every time. And that is what seems to define where Jens Emil Sloth Nielsen is right now in his racing journey, an outlier on the cusp of becoming world class.
At Oak Mountain Jens went on to claim another 2 podiums, giving him the points he needed to top the World Cup leaderboard. So just as he intended, Jens will don the gold cap as the official series leader when Stop #3 gets underway in the Meuse river in Namur, Belgium on June 10.
Growing up in a small Danish city surrounded by nature, Jens tried every sport. Handball, table tennis, basketball, soccer—if one of his friends was doing a sport, Jens was there. A knee injury led him to try cycling and, finally, he discovered the sport that truly resonated. “I used my city bike on the mountain bike trails, and then I borrowed my dad’s mountain bike, and then I bought my own. I really enjoyed biking and I found out that I had a good talent for it,” he says. He started to race locally, then with the junior national team, but admittedly he never felt comfortable in the elite environment.
“I used my city bike on the mountain bike trails, and then I borrowed my dad’s mountain bike, and then I bought my own."
After high school, Jens decided to pursue sport science studies at university and it was there his path crossed with the triathlon community at just the right time. “I already tried a bit of XTERRA, but that was more for fun. But then, this triathlon community was other young people who were studying as well, and also had all of the same troubles that you have as a young person. I could just finally reflect myself in someone else,” he explains.“It was such a good environment, it made me realize a whole different part of the sport, when it's a professional environment in your daily life. It motivated me to pick up elite sports again.”
The positive environment rekindled his ambitions for elite sport. Most of the group were road triathletes but Jens trained with them as much as he could and he started racing again. He raced locally in Denmark at small and big races but it was XTERRA that captivated him.
"I loved that you have to put water and wheel and foot together in the sport and you're in nature.”
“I just loved XTERRA. I loved the diversity of it. I loved that you have to put water and wheel and foot together in the sport and you're in nature,” he says. “I also quickly found out that it was a damn hard competition and it was a lot to work for. So, I started working and here I am now trying, still trying to reach the top.”
Jens had to turn himself from an MTB rider into an off-road triathlete, but it wasn’t just a case of learning how to swim and run. Jens says it’s also been more about learning how to ride after swimming and biking to set himself up for a good run.
“When you start with a swim, it's just different getting on the bike. And I had to learn to take care of myself on the bike to save some energy for the run. So it's really not the same as when I was a top elite mountain biker,” he explains. “I’m probably still on the same level as I was when I did some of my good mountain bike races, but it's just a different kind of way to race my bike and I really needed some years to figure that out.”
XTERRA Malta was when everything clicked for the first time. After several podiums, Jens took first place in Malta in 2021. It took another season to find some consistency but Jens still feels like a student of the sport. “I'm just learning how to put a good race together,” he says. “I'm still so bad at doing transitions. I think my run is super good when I'm just doing a run but off bike it's like a different discipline. I think in the near future I can use my run. I just need to dial it in and adjust to the off-bike.” He adds that swimming is still his weakest discipline and that, while he sees improvement, it is very much a work in progress. “I've only really done XTERRA for four years. I feel so young in the sport still,” he says.
"I think in the near future I can use my run. I just need to dial it in and adjust to the off-bike.”
With his progress only building momentum, Jens is looking to cement his status as a contender: “I’m on the outskirts of being a world class athlete. Now I want to step into it.”
His double podium win in Oak Mountain will certainly give him the confidence he needs after finishing just 35 seconds off the pace in the full-distance race and a mere 17 seconds back in the Short Track.
“I’m proud to be the World Cup leader,” he says. “Oak Mountain was a good step into the world-class level.”
“I’m on the outskirts of being a world class athlete. Now I want to step into it.”
No longer looking on the outskirts, Jens is ready to contend with XTERRA’s best. “Serrières is not unbeatable. He was really eager to come and win this weekend but I’m ready for the battle. I’m eager to defend the World Cup lead with all I have in Belgium and it will be very hard. It will be a stacked field but I feel confident.”
Jens Emil: The Outlier is a two part story, with part 2 digging into why his pursuit of high performance is different, deeply personal, and something that gives him a confidence that no athlete can touch. Read Jens Emil: The Outlier (Part 2) here.
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