Alex Yee explains his 2021 glow up, which included two Olympic medals
Alex Yee had no way to predict the year he had. He’s just 23, and like all triathletes, he was coming off a missed year of competition due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He knew he had been training well, but how that translated to a race — against real people in real time — no one could know.
He really wanted to go to the Olympics. Accomplishing anything more than that would be a pipe dream, something he couldn’t even bring himself to wish for.
Yee didn’t expect to win a World Triathlon Championship Series race in Leeds in June, nor did he think he’d take the men’s Super League Triathlon title in September. And he never fathomed what took place in August: Olympic gold in the mixed relay triathlon and silver in the men’s triathlon, just 11 seconds behind Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt.
“I felt so young and so immature at the beginning of the year because it was such a quick rise to that level of competition,” Yee says. “I didn’t feel like I deserved to stand on the start line with my idols and the people I looked up to watching the telly.
Now I feel a bit more worthy of standing on the start line, and I feel like I deserve to be there and I can compete. I can go to the front of races. That is my wheel and not someone else's.
“Now I feel a bit more worthy of standing on the start line, and I feel like I deserve to be there and I can compete. I can go to the front of races. That is my wheel and not someone else’s, I’m going to hold my space and I’m going to attack.”
Yee looks even younger than his years, somehow, but he’s heading into 2022 brimming with the confidence of a seasoned racer. He caught up with the Race Shop at the start of his offseason to discuss how he broke through in 2021, what newfound notoriety is like and how he plans to build on his form for next season and beyond.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length. Lead image by Chris Sansom.
How are you feeling in this moment, now that your season has just wound down? Exhausted? Rewarded?
Alex Yee: Finishing the season, I think the main thing was I just felt a huge sense of gratitude for everything that happened, whether that’s me getting the opportunity to race for Team GB or just all the people supporting me from afar — sponsors, athletes, coaches, support staff, families, all those people. I think that’s been my biggest emotion when I finished, because I could have never imagined I’d have a season like this. Leading into this year — I mean, I’d had an incredible winter and I was training better than I ever had, but you still never expect to start on the world stage and be right up there and be competitive straightaway. Especially because we’d had such a long period away from racing, basically two years of the unknown after COVID and whether racing is going to happen.
I was just incredibly, incredibly proud to be able to achieve those things, not only for me but for my country, my area, the people I love the most. I think to be able to give back in that sense was really cool, and I’m humbled by the response and the reception that we got back home after the Olympics. It was something you could never imagine that your sport could have such an impact on people’s lives.
It was something you could never imagine that your sport could have such an impact on people's lives.
To what do you attribute the success you had this year? Was there any sort of focus before the season began?
Yee: Over the COVID pandemic I moved from Leeds, where I was training originally, down to Loughborough, which is a British high performance university that has a lot of brilliant athletes, a lot of Olympic champions already. And I thought it was a great opportunity to take a lot of the brilliant stuff I’d learned from Leeds and bring it here. And my girlfriend’s here as well, and she’s also a triathlete, and it was kind of a real natural fit.
I think, for me, a big thing has just been looking specifically at the races I’m racing and picking out specific things inside the race that I think are key to me. Whether it’s for the Olympic Games, when we had a look at my power file for the test event which I’d done prior to competing — looking at that power, breaking it down and making sure I was doing all the right power zones, and making sure I was working the right intensities for the general training week. Or just throughout winter to make sure I’m getting to that start line and racing the best possible race I can. Looking into specifics has been really helpful in getting in those last few percents.
Another thing was making sure I was well hydrated and monitoring that from day to day. I was really interested in that, and it actually led to me having quite significant improvements in my training, let alone into competition. It’s been really interesting to look at things which aren’t so clear cut, that aren’t just about your times on your swim, bike and run, scratching behind the surface and actually looking at other things.
Who’s been guiding you through some of those minute details of your training?
Yee: I’ve been really lucky to have my coach Adam. Also, we have access to a whole range of support staff, from physiologists to nutritionists to physiotherapists, and they all work on one network, and I think that collectiveness has created something really good. We tackle things head on from every single angle and I think that’s been really helpful, the fact that I can come to my coach with a challenge and he can speak to other people if he doesn’t know, and he can be honest and say, ‘I need advice for this,’ and then you get another perspective from a different pillar of sports science.
I feel like I’m on the best equipment I could physically be on, so for me the next phase is just getting everything out of my body.
I feel like I'm on the best equipment I could physically be on, so for me the next phase is just getting everything out of my body.
Going into the season, what would you have considered a successful year for yourself?
Yee: I didn’t really have much of an idea of where I’d be on the world stage, just because of the unknown of two years of no competition. You stand on that first start line not knowing what’s gonna happen, who’s going to be dominant, where you stand. So for me, a successful year was just qualifying for the Olympic Games, let alone worrying about where I finished. I just really wanted to go and experience it, and it kind of escalated from that goal to becoming what it was.
Do you have a standout memory from the year?
Yee: Specifically from a bike point of view, I remember in Leeds feeling amazing on the bike straight away as soon as I got on. I remember when we were 25-30K in, Alistair Brownlee, who’s the person who I was competing against to qualify for the Olympics — I was going up the hill and I remember dropping his wheel, and he’s always been regarded as the strongest cyclist in triathlon. For that moment to happen and him to drop my wheel I thought, ‘Wow, I must be in a pretty good position.’ And I went on to win that race and that day, and that kind of performance really made me believe in myself as a triathlete, as opposed to just being a really good runner in triathlon. So for me to be able to bike as well as I did, to swim as well as I did and run as well as I did, I think that gave me a belief in myself that I could maybe do it at the next level at the Olympics. It was just a really special day to do it for a home crowd, as well.
What was going through your mind at that moment? Were you asking yourself, ‘How is this happening?’
Yee: Yeah, it was more of, ‘How is this happening, what is going on?’ [Laughs]. Just an out of body moment that definitely gave me some belief that I could bring it home, and it was amazing to do that.
What has the attention been like since the Olympics, and getting recognized? I’m guessing that it’s a pretty new feeling.
Yee: Yeah, it’s been a bit bizarre. I feel like an incredibly normal person. I feel just like anyone else. So for people to come up to you in the street — on the train today, somebody recognized me and I had a quick chat with her — you just don’t expect things like that to happen to someone just doing what they enjoy. I just enjoy swimming, riding my bike and running.
It’s really cool that I can have the opportunity to be on this platform. And as much as it’s amazing for myself, I just want to inspire other people and be a great ambassador for the sport, and elevate the sport to where it should be. Because it’s a tough sport, and I think that it deserves a lot of respect. The athletes who are training and racing on the circuit at the moment are incredibly interesting and I just want to promote them and myself and bring up a new generation in the UK, because I feel like I was incredibly lucky to be part of a legacy which Alistair and Jonny Brownlee left behind for me.
On the train today, somebody recognized me and I had a quick chat with her — you just don't expect things like that to happen to someone just doing what they enjoy.
What was it like riding the Olympic paint scheme along with other Trek-sponsored Olympians?
Yee: I still have it. It’s still on ‘one ride, one clean’ at the moment. [Laughs]. So every time I ride it, it has to be cleaned, especially in the UK weather. But it’s definitely the most beautiful bike I’ve ever been given. The color scheme is incredibly thoughtful, and for us as triathletes, it was really good because it stood out in transition. Having so many other bikes in transition, that rainbow color stood out straight away, and we were able to see it. And my girlfriend and my family at home actually commented on how it was really easy to pick out of a bike pack. So for them it really stood out and yeah, I think it left a mark on a lot of people’s minds.
At what point during the year did you think you might have the form to win a medal at the Olympics?
Yee: Yeah, so the first World Triathlon Series race of the season I actually had a really bad stomach bug before the race, and I knew I was a little bit under the weather, and I still managed to come away with fourth place. For me, that was a real big surprise to be able to be competitive with those guys not in my best shape. So moving on to Leeds I had a bit of faith in myself and knew that I could be competitive at the front. I never would have thought I would win, but when you win — I guess it’s one thing thinking that you can do something, then there’s another thing of actually doing it. Winning that world series really made me believe that I belonged at the front of races and that I was good enough to win if I had the right race. So, it was really, really special to be able to achieve that.
What was Trek’s support like?
Yee: Trek’s been incredible to me. I think, especially during the pandemic, there’s been so much unknown of what’s going to happen. But Trek just stood by me, and I think that says a lot about the brand and the culture. And the fact that I was still able to get new bikes this year. I had the new Emonda, which I raced for the first time in Leeds, and it was the perfect bike for me. I really sat on the start line believing I have the best equipment, and I’m incredibly lucky to have that. I think that the work that Trek does, and the support they give me, is second to none. I’m really lucky to have that behind me, and hopefully long may it last.
How have you matured as a person during the last year?
Yee: After a year’s more racing experience, I feel like I belong in races now, and I feel like I deserve to be competitive. I felt so young and so immature at the beginning of the year because it was such a quick rise to that level of competition. I just didn’t feel quite like — I don’t know, I didn’t feel like I deserved to stand on the start line with my idols and the people I looked up to watching the telly. Now I feel a bit more worthy of standing on the start line, and I feel like I deserve to be there and I can compete, I can go to the front of races. That is my wheel and not someone else’s, I’m going to hold my space and I’m going to attack.
I absolutely love racing. I think nothing comes close to the feeling of racing and just going that fast.
And then from the success that I’ve been given, I’d love to just be a good role model for the new generation and people coming up, and I think that’s incredibly important. I have an opportunity to really inspire people and make a difference in their lives. If I can do that, then I’d love to, and hopefully they’ll buy Trek bikes and become triathletes or cyclists.
Now that you’re in the offseason, do you find it’s hard to unwind from the competitive portion of the year?
Yee: I absolutely love racing. I think nothing comes close to the feeling of racing and just going that fast, and that feeling of pushing yourself to the limit and seeing what your body can achieve, and then having a new and challenging you. I just fundamentally love what I’m doing. I think the Covid lockdown actually gave me the clarity that I’m doing triathlon because I love the sport and I love riding my bike, I love swimming, I love running.
I think winter is a really good reminder of why you do the sport, and it just keeps you honest. It’s a hustle and it’s a grind as well, which I really enjoy doing with my friends. I’m really looking forward to it.