East x Southeast — an Alex Yee story

Hyde Park, summer, 2012 — London is in full swing. A collective state of delirium has swept the capital. A pandemic of the best kind — one of pride, patriotism, and performances — Olympic fever.

As the triathlon unfolds amongst the Westminster park’s famous landmarks, a slender, dark-haired teenager watches eagerly as the Brownlee brothers — Alastair and Jonathan — add to the nation’s medal tally. The young lad’s name is Alex Yee, who’ll mature into one of the world’s greatest triathletes himself in the years that followed.

‘It was a hugely inspiring moment for me,’ says Alex, now 24 years old. ‘Having the Olympics, literally on my doorstep, was just ridiculous. Being able to get the tube and watch the Brownlees get gold and bronze was a big moment — it was then I thought, “I really want to go to the Olympics, too.”’

London is a melting pot — a heaving metropolis of almost 9 million people. 270 nationalities. 300 plus languages. A magnet that has pulled in folk from every corner of the world for centuries — attracted by the city’s hope and hustle — just as Alex’s Chinese grandparents did when they settled in the Forest Hill area of the city — after a bit of a detour. ‘My dad was originally born in Mozambique — which is a little confusing. My granddad had moved there during the communist revolution in China. So he was originally in the Macau region in China and moved down to Mozambique.’ he says. ‘Then, once my grandparents knew they were having my dad, they wanted to move to a better place and give a new generation a better life. They had a bit of family already in the UK, so they moved to London, really close to where I live now.’

If Alex’s father’s side of the family tree has its roots in the east, his mother’s side is a canopy of British racing green. ‘My mum is British — she was born in Silverstone, the home of British motorsport, which is quite cool,’ he says. ‘My grandad was involved in racing — in the factory side of things — so he worked with the background stuff. He was involved in motorbike racing himself, so my grandparents travelled around the UK to different motorsport factories.’

After meeting through a family friend, Alex’s parents moved to Lewisham in the city’s southeast — a microcosm of what London is all about. Multicultural, busy, restless, and pulsating with life. ‘Lewisham was, and is, home. It was always an extremely diverse community growing up. It was always very noisy — cars screaming down the street, different things going on — people shouting and whatever. For me, it was always home — people always looked out for each other.’

The Chinese influence on Alex’s life was apparent from early on, and it shaped the way he treated people, trained, and kept on the straight and narrow. ‘You had respect for the authority of your parents, and you do what they say. I was taught that from a very early age,’ he says. ‘The Chinese culture taught me respect and to listen. Applying that to a coach or teacher has allowed me to maximise the input they are putting in. It’s all about respecting my elders. My dad would always look after my grandad. The eldest son is always raised to do that, so being the eldest, I was aware of that from an early age. My grandad taught me about it and tried to engrain it into me.’

The journey into triathlons started at a young age — he was around 8 when he first dabbled, but if he points out where it got serious, it was one day after running a cross-country race when he was 14. As is often the case, it was a chance encounter that set the wheels in motion. ‘I was doing some cross country in school, and one of the coaches from my local athletics club came up to me and was like, “You should come down to the club to do some training,”’ he says. ‘I didn’t know where the Ladywell track was initially, but it turned out to only be a mile from our house. When coincidences like that happen, it’s always a big moment. Going down there and running with guys who were well above my level, just smashing yourself as a 14- year-old. You’re just naturally going to get better.’

Those Tuesday evening track nights left a lasting impression on Alex — it was on that evening each week that the coach Ken Pike would invite athletes from neighbouring clubs to come and join in. And things would get spicy. ‘The best runners from all the South London clubs would come and run on that day, on Tuesday evening. It was pretty cool, and we would do some silly sessions, like 5–6 x 2km or 10 x 1km. For the older guys, there was definitely some bragging rights. They were also quite mature — they knew what they were doing. But me, as a young guy, I was full guns. I just wanted to win every rep, and 9 times out of 10, I wouldn’t. But then you get closer and closer. Then you start winning some and get a taste for it. I mean, those guys were really supportive of me coming in — because, at first — I wasn’t at a good enough level,’ he says. ‘Ken was one of the first people to give me a bit of guidance with my running — a little bit of technical advice — it really changed my running trajectory.’

A major city like London has its advantages — everything is on your doorstep or a tube ride away. It’s a place where a teenager gets that sought-after independence earlier, untethered from the dependency on a parent to taxi them around. ‘In a lot of other places, people have to be driven to training or to go to the supermarket. For me, I could do it myself — I could get a bus or get a train — everything is well connected. Even though it’s such a big place, it’s condensed because of how well connected it all is.’

‘The thing about London is, you’re probably exposed to some more things from an earlier age. I was lucky — I had triathlon, that was my thing to do. In the evening, I’d go to training — that was my way of socialising,’

With that freedom, however, comes a certain amount of temptation. Sure, everything is close at hand, but that everything includes unwise vices and choices. A kid without a passion or a focus can be led astray. ‘The thing about London is, you’re probably exposed to some more things from an earlier age. I was lucky — I had triathlon, that was my thing to do. In the evening, I’d go to training — that was my way of socialising,’ he says. ‘If you don’t have that, it’s often easier to be moved into different avenues. That’s where I think councils and government could do a better job, giving accessibility to facilities like the Ladywell track — you know, making that free. Because a lot of kids will go and do that, people want a purpose. Otherwise, it’s easy to be dragged into something you think you want to be a part of but probably don’t.’

Alex saw firsthand that the difference between a naturally-gifted athlete making it or not could be counted, literally, with the loose change in your pocket. History is littered with tales of kids with potential that fall between the cracks for various reasons. ‘I was lucky in the sense that I had parents who supported me — some people don’t have that. I could keep going back to training, and they gave me the two pounds, or whatever it was, to pay my fee for the track,’ he says. ‘Even in my close friendship group — a few of them that I took to my triathlon sessions when I was about 13 years old. Seeing some of them going round the track or swimming — a few had so much potential. It’s such a shame.’

Fitting in, being part of a clan, it’s such a primal part of being a human being. Alex was always different. With his mixed ethnicity and identifying as a serious athlete from an early age — he ran the risk of being seen as an outlier by his peers once the parties started and the tongues got loose. But Lewisham is different. ‘Even though there was always the odd joke about your race — one of the great things about London is that you are accepted for whoever you are rather than your colour, sexual orientation, or whatever,’ he says. ‘I was exposed to so many different cultures. I would go to a friend's house from Nigeria and eat extravagant food and use my hands to eat. I’d have to say please and thank you, and there was always a lot of respect there. Then I would go to a friend’s house from England, and things were more laid back. I loved that balance.’ And as for the early nights, even unforgiving

teens can appreciate talent and commitment when they see it. ‘At parties, there was pressure initially when people didn’t realise how serious I was taking triathlon. As I started to become the athlete of the group, they started to understand and be more considerate around me. They supported me and backed me. I appreciated that a lot.’

In a way, Alex’s story is only just getting started. But one ring has already been closed. Nine years after witnessing the Brownlee heroics in London, on a balmy day in Tokyo, Alex is leading the Olympic triathlon race on the last lap of the run. He will ultimately finish in second place — 10 seconds behind Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt — to claim a silver medal at the age of 23. Then came the inaugural Olympic triathlon mixed relay race. Alex was part of the gold-winning team that included Jess Learmonth, Georgia Taylor-Brown, and his boyhood idol, Jonny Brownlee.

‘It felt almost like full circle for me,’ he says. ‘I got to share the podium and the gold medal with him in Tokyo, having watched him 9 years before. From being one of those kids watching a major sporting event — to hopefully doing the same thing for someone else is a pretty amazing thing to think. That’s probably one of the cool things that have changed in my life. People are telling me that they have started triathlon, or are running, because of me. That’s bizarre to think. I feel incredibly fortunate.’

Words by Robbie Lawless, Photos by Dan King.