Alex Yee: Exclusive interview with Olympic star triathlete
From his first World Triathlon win, via a double medal haul at the Tokyo Olympics, to Super League victory, 2021 has been 23-year-old Alex Yee’s annus mirabilis. We caught up with British Tri’s superstar to reflect on the last 12 months and look ahead to the next…
Oh, what a year! What a Yee-Hah! Excuse the hyperbole, but when describing the last 12 months of Britain’s gold and silver Olympic triathlon medallist Alex Yee, it’s almost forgivable.
Set against the misery of the pandemic, the tonic of a couple of late nights in July watching the 23-year-old from southeast London stride to silver in the individual event in Tokyo and then anchor the GB relay quartet to gold could hardly have been more welcome.
There’s little doubt multisport fans in the UK have been spoiled on this biggest stage since London 2012. A combined five medals from the Brownlee brothers and Vicky Holland meant the heat was on in the Far East – and the weight of expectation rested on the slight frame of Yee.
Yee delivered by retaining the grace and gratitude that has been the hallmark of his rise to prominence from an upbring in Brockley and early development with Crystal Palace Triathletes, to recovering from a horror bike crash in 2017, and winning the British 10km title the following year.
It hasn’t all been about the Olympics in 2021 either. Yee hit the ground running in the World Triathlon Championship Series – his first WTCS win in Leeds in front of a sell-out crowd was a memory to cherish.
And he put the disappointment of missing out on the world title in Edmonton behind him to embark on a hectic four-week Super League programme and emerge the victor.
With all this and much more to chat about, 220 caught up with Alex to reflect on the year of Yee.
220: It’s been a busy year for you, and the World Triathlon season still continues. Are you putting your feet up or still competing?
Alex Yee: I had three weeks off after Super League, watched my girlfriend Liv [Mathias] race in Barcelona, then flew to Crete, and spent a few days in Santorini. It allowed this year to sink in, but I’m looking forward to winter training now.
Towards the end of my break, I was relating everything to triathlon, and think Liv was getting annoyed.
220: What will this winter look like for you?
AY: I’ll spend most of it in the UK. I’d love to race cross-country or cyclocross. Cross-country and triathlon running are similar in that it’s about the first across the line irrespective of a time. Those fundamentals are hard to teach in training.
220: Taking you back a couple of years, was there a moment where you realised you could be an Olympic medal contender?
AY: I wouldn’t say I felt like a medal contender heading into Tokyo! But there was one bike-run session I did in February that gave me confidence. The weather was horrendous, but I ran just under 8:30mins for 3km finishing around 2:30min/km.
Also, a later session in the heat chamber where I did 5 x 2km. We’d previously used heat with light aerobic exercise to get a stimulus. I ran around 2:55min/km and thought it’d give me a good chance in an attritional race.
220: If you compare yourself now to how you were as a junior athlete, what are the big changes?
AY: More training consistency and race experience. Triathlon is one of the few sports where there’s no other way of getting to the top – you must be extremely hard working.
Another one is being surrounded by excellence. In Leeds, I was training with Ali, Jonny, Jess [Learmonth], Georgia [Taylor-Brown] and Tom [Bishop]. I learnt from those guys and brought a bit of that to Loughborough.
220: The bike crash in Italy in 2017 led to broken ribs, vertebrae and a collapsed lung. How did you recover both mentally and physically?
AY: The healing process was extremely smooth, and I went from being unsure whether I’d ever run again to winning the British 10km champs the following year. Credit to everyone who helped me including the British Triathlon support staff.
It gave perspective. You realise that health is the No. 1 thing, and it gave me clarity that I loved triathlon. The crash also meant a lot of gym rehab where I built a foundation that’s meant I’ve been injury-free from bone stress overuse-type injuries so far.
220: The Leeds World Series win secured Olympic qualification and put an ear-to-ear grin on your face. What are your memories of that day?
AY: Probably my most complete race of the year – a proud moment that made me believe in myself and what I was doing. We hadn’t had crowds for so long, and there were friends and family and Liv raced beforehand.
I remember being so present and able to make such clear race decisions. I was really living.
220: On to Tokyo, was there a moment you thought you might win Olympic gold in the individual race – or lose it in the mixed relay?
AY: I didn’t want to give myself the opportunity to think about being an Olympic champion, I just wanted to treat it like any other race, so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed. I don’t have any regrets.
Maybe I could have been a bit more tactically aware when Blummenfelt went, but the way he was accelerating, I struggle to believe I’d have been able to do much. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.
The mixed relay was almost the opposite. The work of the first three – probably the three best mixed relay legs of all time – was so worthy of a gold medal, I couldn’t lose!
The moment Vincent [Luis] came through on the bike, I really had to dig in. It made it exciting, and people back home really bought into it, which was brilliant for the sport.
220: While you managed the heat and humidity in Tokyo, I understand there were different challenges during Super League Triathlon?
AY: I raced in Jersey in 2018 and really struggled with the cold water. This year I wore a swim-skin under my tri-suit which acted as a base layer and didn’t affect my stride or pedal stroke too much.
It was probably a placebo, but I felt it helped. When it’s just over 20°C and non-wetsuit, I still really struggle.
220: Do you get obsessive about data or is it more about feel?
AY: Over the winter I keep it simple, using power for bike sessions and speed for run sessions. But with coach Adam Elliott, we were meticulous for the Olympics.
We had access to physiologists, nutritionists and I did a lot of work with hydration. We broke down the Olympic test event power file and did a deep-dive for training specificity.
I stood at the start with complete clarity that I’d done everything I could and what would be would be.
220: Was 11th place in Edmonton and missing the world title a disappointment?
AY: I definitely struggled with managing the attention and demands [after Tokyo] and maybe hadn’t trained appropriately leading in. I want to be there for everyone, and it’s reached the point where I can’t physically do it.
But Edmonton was a learning curve, and I’m at complete peace that I didn’t win the world championship because I don’t feel I’m at that point where I can call myself a world champ.
220: Do you call yourself an Olympic champion, though?
AY: Not often, no. Maybe that should be my new Twitter bio. Alistair joked with Jonny that he’s not more successful [than him by winning a third Olympic medal] because it’s only a quarter of a gold medal.
220: But you are Super League Triathlon champion for 2021. Aside from the $120,000 cheque, what were your highlights?
AY: The big attraction was being able to learn – you get exposed to so much racing the best in the world. The SLT format doesn’t really suit me, but I found a way to be competitive. Racing in London is just different gravy, the support was incredible.
Another highlight was the sprint finish with Jonny in Jersey. For us and Jess and Georgia to both go one-two was a cool statement after we’d been Olympic mixed relay champions together.
220: What are your aims for 2022?
AY: I’d love to race well at the Commonwealth Games. I feel I’m a product of London 2012. To have the Olympics on my doorstep and watch Ali and Jonny fly by really lit a fire for me. I’d love to have the same opportunity to race on the streets of Birmingham and inspire people.
220: And beyond?
AY: The big goal is to be competitive in any race scenario. I have work to do on the bike and especially on the swim. We had a big project working on my 50m breakout speed.
We’re now moving to 50-200m, 200-400m and onwards. We’re also going to look at my response to cold-water swimming and a deep-dive into the physiological aspects, which will be interesting.
220: You’ve always come across as level-headed. Where does that influence come from?
AY: I’ve been fortunate to have firm but fair and loving parents who’ve taught me good values and brought me up well. They were never pushy, but let me do things because I wanted to.
220: Southeast London basked in your Olympic achievements. How much did you enjoy the hero’s reception?
AY: The response has been incredible. Seeing the mural by Brockley Station bridge for the first time was overwhelming – the area reciprocated how I feel about them. I was taking a few photos, and people were beeping driving past or saying they stayed up late to watch. I guess you don’t realise the impact until people tell you.
220: The British athletics fraternity would love you to drop the swim and bike, head for track and eventually the marathon. How tempted are you?
AY: I love triathlon and want to explore what my body can give at least until Paris, but there’s an undeniable romance with the track. I love the energy it brings every time I step on it, even for a Tuesday track session.
I still think there’s space for me to do some track racing. I also went to the London Marathon this year and was lucky enough to be at the finish on the Mall watching Phil Sesemann come home [as first Brit].
I trained with Phil at Kent AC for a few months. Then we saw Lucy Charles-Barclay come across the line and it was ‘What’s going on? You were in Malibu last weekend!’ It made me really want to do a marathon.
I’d love to go under 2:10 before I retire. My 27:51 10km was in 2018 and pre carbon innovation, so you wonder what could happen.
220: You’re currently second on the all-time parkrun list behind Andy Baddeley by just 9secs. Fancy having a shot at the record?
AY: Turning up at a parkrun now, I’ll just want to jog around with my mum. There aren’t many opportunities to go home to London, and Dulwich, where I’d love to give it a crack. Although by the third lap I’m having to weave around people.
Yee’s top 3 run tips
Nail your sprint finish
Know the course. In Jersey there was the dead turn just before the line. Be first into the corner and carry as much speed as you can through each turn. Relax the shoulders, drive the arms through and your legs will follow – and time the dip right.
Pace a 10K to perfection
Try for an even or negative split for the fastest time. The first mile or two is easy speed, the adrenalin spurs you on. After that it’s a ‘maybe pace’ where you don’t quite know if you can hold it until the end. That’s your limit pacing-wise.
Stay mentally strong
Try to stay in the moment. Your brain can spiral and the chimp on your shoulder can come and tell you it’s hard. I always come back to: ‘What’s next? What’s the best thing I can do in the next 30sec to get me to the next 30sec in the best possible shape?’
220: You’re now in Loughborough living and training with girlfriend Liv Mathias? How do you keep the work-life balance?
AY: It went from a long-distance relationship to being together really quickly. We were training partners through the start of lockdown and to share that was special. Things have progressed and she was a big reason why I moved to Loughborough.
We squabble about silly things, but for the most part love each other’s company and she’s my partner in crime. She was so supportive over my Olympic journey and organised for people to go and watch in a local sports bar on the big screen.
I think l expected she’d come to Leeds and I’d stay there, but it’s crazy the way the world works and Covid has brought us together in a different place.
220: With the competition so tough, does Liv have an outside chance for Paris 2024?
AY: I truly believe she does. She’s had a first taste of World Series racing and knows what it takes. It’s similar to where I was in 2019. It isn’t easy and there’s a lot of talent, but they’re only human.
I believe she can make the breaks we saw in Leeds, Edmonton and Tokyo, and potentially with Lucy [Charles-Barclay] coming in, and Jess and Georgia staying, it’s the way the sport will be on the female side for a few years.
220: Having failed to get three spots for Tokyo, can the British men achieve it for Paris?
AY: In 2016, you probably wouldn’t have put me in the frame for 2020-21. They’ll be a surprise, someone who’ll develop well when they move to university and find structure in training.
Ben [Dijkstra] is an incredible athlete and not really got a weakness. Sam [Dickinson] is an aggressive racer and his style will pay dividends. There are talented juniors like Dan Dickson and Conor Bentley. It’ll be exciting.
220: The inevitable question. Do you eventually see yourself racing Ironman?
AY: I’ve found that people who have plans never stick to them. You heard Jonny say it would be his last Olympics, and then he’ll be in Paris.
I’d love to have a go at long-course racing but would also love to do some marathons, so if there is a way of marrying the two, I’d be interested. You never know until you try.
Read more about Alex Yee’s background and career history.