Weekend Interview: Time for Leeds’s Alex Bell to step up the pace

Date: 21st November 2016. Picture James Hardisty.
Alexandra Bell, 800m & XC Athlete, from Leeds, running for Pudsey & Bramley/Leeds Beckett University, pictured whilst training on the running track at Leeds Beckett University Headingley Campus.
Date: 21st November 2016. Picture James Hardisty. Alexandra Bell, 800m & XC Athlete, from Leeds, running for Pudsey & Bramley/Leeds Beckett University, pictured whilst training on the running track at Leeds Beckett University Headingley Campus.
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Shop worker by day, policewoman at night, Alexandra Bell is making an unusual circuit in her bid to light up the world of athletics.

Over the last 12 months, the two-lap specialist has emerged as one of the brightest talents in British athletics.

Date: 21st November 2016. Picture James Hardisty.
Alexandra Bell, 800m & XC Athlete, from Leeds, running for Pudsey & Bramley/Leeds Beckett University, pictured whilst training on the running track at Leeds Beckett University Headingley Campus.

Date: 21st November 2016. Picture James Hardisty. Alexandra Bell, 800m & XC Athlete, from Leeds, running for Pudsey & Bramley/Leeds Beckett University, pictured whilst training on the running track at Leeds Beckett University Headingley Campus.

She finished the summer of 2016 fifth on the UK 800m rankings having clocked three times under the Olympic qualifying mark.

But, while taking on the best of the world on the track, she mixes time on the beat as a volunteer special constable in the Leeds police force.

“It’s pretty hectic but I love it,” she says with a smile. “It’s like a release.

“I can find myself doing a ten-hour shift from 9pm at night until 7am in the morning and then having to go training.

“In time, going into the police is something I want to do full time.

“I am really passionate about it and I do as many hours as I possibly can.”

For now, however, her focus is back on catching her rivals on the track.

Following a breakthrough year, Bell has been rewarded with a place on the British Athletics world class performance programme for 2017.

A drop of more than a second to her 800m personal best has seen her earmarked as an Olympic hopeful for Tokyo in four years’ time and put her in the same races as the elite.

And for the first time in her career, she knows she belongs there.

“These past few years it’s taken me a while to believe in the potential that I have got. This last year was a bit of a breakthrough in that sense,” she says.

“British Athletics are believing in me and I believe in myself now. If other people are investing the time and money into me, I need to do that myself.

“This last year, I have realised that I should give it all that I have got.

“The funding has come at the right time for me. I had got to a point where I thought, I will give running and athletics another year at least before I settle down in a career. I have got to start moving on at some point.’”

There is plenty reason for that belief, too.

In two years she has taken almost three seconds off her personal best – a sharp improvement in an event lasting around 120 seconds.

Her route to Rio was only blocked by the quality and depth in British female 800m running.

She finished the year as the fifth fastest in Britain, the same position she finished at the British Athletics Championships in June.

One highlight of the summer came in July when Bell featured in a Diamond League race for a first time.

The race did not go exactly to plan – finishing seventh – but it was a statement of her determination to mix it with the elite.

She flew in from Dublin in a hurry having smashed her personal best at the Morton Games less than 24 hours earlier.

Bell’s selection in the ‘potential’ category of the British funding system is a reward for the perseverance of a career which is starting to blossom at the age of 24.

Like many runners, athletics wasn’t Bell’s first point of call growing up. From dancing to ballet and then into football, it was only at high school in Pudsey where she was encouraged to try out cross country.

“I actually did my first race in football boots, and I remember thinking this is actually all right” she recalls.

“At that age, I just wanted to try as many things as I could and get involved in as much as possible.”

It was only when she reached the final of the English Schools championship that she decided to pursue her running dreams.

Despite showing promise, her enthusiasm for the sport waned at Leeds Beckett University and it was not until she left the campus that her times started to actually decline.

She adds: “I went to university and it tapered off a bit in the first year and then I got the bug back again.

“It was just a phase.

“Everyone goes through phase in their life when they have fallen out of love with it. Thankfully for me it was only a short phase.

“I can’t ever imagine being back in that place again. It’s what I want to do and keep going, striving on to be the best.”

Many athletes would see the financial support as a chance to allow them to focus primarily on athletics. However, several of the hottest talents have been criticised in the past for resting on their laurels when elevated onto the funding at too young an age and wasting their talent.

For Bell, that simply won’t be the case.

The proud Pudsey runner, who wears the club’s claret and yellow vest in all her races around the world, is ramping up her training programme under coach Aaron Thomas – husband to veteran Wakefield runner Charlene – and knows an improvement towards breaking the much-coveted two-minute barrier is not far away.

“I need to break that barrier,” Bell says.

“That’s definitely getting broken this year.”

For some, such a barrier would be a daunting prospect. But for Bell, it’s just scratching the surface to what she thinks she can achieve.

“I know exactly what I need to do,” she adds.

“Can you believe that I have come this far and I haven’t actually done any gym sessions?

“I only squatted for the first time when I went to the gym with my coach at the start of this winter season.”

Now Bell has her sights set on a place in the Team GB squad for the World Championships in London next year and the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia a year later.

But while championship rewards are an obvious goal, the 24-year-old also wants to cement her name in local folklore and beat the exploits of Hallamshire’s Becky Lyne to become Yorkshire’s fastest female 800m of all time.

For her to achieve that, another two seconds must be shaved off her best.

“She ran 1,58. That’s my ultimate goal,” Bell says.

“Before I finish athletics, I want to be No 1 on the Yorkshire all-time list.

“Obviously I would love to go to the Olympics, but that’s the number one thing that I have set myself. And I’m going to give it my best to achieve it.”