Best of 2021: Alex Yee, Londoner and hero of Tokyo 2020 Olympics
In this interview from September 2021, Frank Dalleres speaks to Tokyo 2020 Olympics gold and silver medallist Alex Yee about his rapid ascent to the top of triathlon, clocking the second fastest ever Park Run and his love for his hometown, London.
Alex Yee burned brightly at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer but the flame was lit nine years earlier back home in London.
The Lewisham triathlete, who won silver in the men’s race and then anchored Team GB to gold in the mixed relay in July, attended the London 2012 Games as a wide-eyed 14-year-old.
Yee, now 23, remembers going to the Olympic Stadium to see Usain Bolt in the 100m heats and still has a framed newspaper cutting of the sprinter’s gold medal triumph.
He also watched track cycling at the velodrome and his heroes the Brownlee brothers, who would later become his mentors, compete in the triathlon in Hyde Park.
“They always said ‘inspire a generation’ [London 2012’s motto] and I really feel like I am one of those kids,” Yee tells City A.M.
“I was able to watch the Games on my doorstep and was lucky enough to go to some of the athletics, see some of the racing in the velodrome, and finally go to the triathlon.
“I remember arriving late and not even being able to see anything because I was so far back, but just feeling the buzz around it and seeing everything happen on the big screen was really special.
“To be able to just get on the tube and access that level of sport I guess set a fire in me.”
Yee’s breakthrough summer and pride in south-east London roots
Yee became an overnight sensation with his silver medal-winning performance in Tokyo, which was as unexpected as it was welcome.
Just weeks earlier Olympic selection had looked unlikely, until he catapulted his way into contention with victory in the Leeds leg of the World Triathlon Championship Series.
Within days of his first medal he added a gold as part of a relay line-up that included Jonny Brownlee, one half of the sport’s super-siblings whom he moved to Yorkshire to train alongside while attending university.
Aside from “a few drinks” that night, he says he still hasn’t celebrated properly, partly due to the 10pm curfew in force at the Games, but plans to when he finally takes a holiday next month.
Yee grew up training at Herne Hill velodrome, Ladywell Arena, Crystal Palace and Forest Hill swimming pool, and took his medals back to his old track to show friends on his first visit home last month.
Those medals are now residing at his parents’ home in Brockley, where his success has been commemorated with a mural that brought home the magnitude of his achievements.
“It wasn’t until I came back to London and took a picture of the mural, people beeping as they went past, that I realised what had happened,” he says.
“It was pretty special to see that. I’m extremely proud to be from south-east London and I really want to serve as an inspiration for people there that it’s possible to achieve things.
“I guess you don’t really realise what you’ve achieved until you see what people are saying and how excited people are for you.
“The fact that I could inspire somebody or [put] a smile on someone’s face, after such a tough time, we’re really lucky to be in that position and that’s what I’m really proud of.”
Brockley boy relishing home crowd for Super League event
Yee is back in London this weekend to take part in the Super League Triathlon Championship Series.
West India Quay is staging the first leg of the $1.25m competition, which features 40 of the world’s best triathletes including Team GB colleagues Brownlee, Jess Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown.
The series uses innovative formats and takes place over four consecutive weekends, also calling at Munich, Jersey and Malibu, but it’s the home leg Yee is relishing most.
“I’m super excited. There’s not many opportunities to race in London, let alone a triathlon,” he says.
“For it to be in such a cool place as well, I can’t really comprehend racing around Canary Wharf, that area of town.
“I’m really proud to come back to my city. Hopefully there’ll be a good crowd; I feel I feed off the energy of people. I felt that in Leeds so hopefully I can do that again in London.”
Why Yee feels he has ‘unfinished business’ in running
Running is Yee’s strongest suit and he made waves as a highly promising track and cross country athlete before prioritising triathlon.
In 2017, he ran the fastest 5km by a British junior for 36 years and the following year he won the national 10km title on his debut at the distance.
He also wrote his name into Parkrun folklore with a sub-14 minute outing, the second fastest ever recorded, in Dulwich in December 2018.
His love of triathlon comes from his dad, an enthusiastic amateur, but he hasn’t ruled out switching focus to running or even attempting to combine both sports at elite level.
“It’s funny, I still feel like I haven’t quite made that decision [between running and triathlon],” he says.
“I’m always going to wake up and swim-bike-run, that’s natural to me and is what gets me out of bed. But at the same time that has been really beneficial to my running.
“I still have a passion for the track and feel like I have some unfinished business. I’d definitely love to still give that a go at some point.
“Doing something different excites me. I definitely want to create my own legacy and inspire people for different reasons than the Brownlees or people like Mo Farah have.”
How Tokyo 2020 success has raised Yee’s expectations
Yee plans to compete in all four Super League Triathlon events and then finally take a very well-earned break.
“I haven’t been on holiday for 10 years or so, so it’ll be nice to go somewhere and do nothing rather than for a camp,” he says.
He will then resume light training at his adopted home of Loughborough, where he is studying for a degree in sport and exercise science.
Beyond that, Yee admits his breakthrough summer has made this south-east London boy set his expectations higher than ever before.
“It definitely made me realise that things are possible. That’s often one of the hard things, having that moment when you start to believe in yourself,” he says.
“If you want to have a long career I think you have to be internally driven and want to get the best out of yourself, so that’s my massive goal.
“I’m still a child of the sport; there’s a lot to come. I don’t know if that will lead to better results or not but I just want to keep improving.”
Super League Triathlon London takes place this Sunday 5th September at West India Quay, with free admission for spectators.