Alexandra Bell interview: How Leeds 800m runner found her inner-peace with Tokyo Olympics heroics
Having poured her heart and soul since her teenage years into striving to be an Olympian, the despair she felt at failing to qualify via the British Athletics Trials to represent her country in Tokyo was too much to bear.
She finished fifth in the 800m, having succumbed to nerves. She had not done herself or her career justice, and at age 27, was left to wonder ‘what more do I have left to give?’
“As dramatic as it sounds I did think it was all over,” the Leeds athlete tells The Yorkshire Post. “When you’ve built up to that one moment and you think you’ve let everybody down. It was terrible.
“I know there’s more to the sport than being an Olympian but I needed to seriously ask myself would I be okay with going through the sport having never been to an Olympics.
“That was really difficult for me to reconcile, accepting that you don’t need to be an Olympian to be a good athlete.”
Bell had been a good athlete, all through the junior and senior ranks, representing her local club Pudsey and Bramley on the national stage with distinction.
She had done it off her own back as well, never deemed good enough to be supported by Lottery funding through UK Sport, she had worked as a Special Constable in the police force and in retail for Nike.
She finished fifth in the Commonwealth Games final three years earlier, but on June 27 this year, fifth place in the Olympic trials did not feel enough.
“I had put so much into that race and I can’t tell you how nervous I was,” she reflects.
“I was in shape, I’d PB’d before going into the trials, I knew what I was capable of, I just put so much pressure on myself because I wanted it so much, it pushed it the other way. In that moment I wanted to quit.”
A conversation with her coach a few days later brought her back around.
“He said the season is not over, we’ve still PB’d, we’re still in shape, what can we do to finish the season on a high? I was planning on doing 1,500m for the rest of the season, to salvage what I could.”
Then came the phone call from British Athletics that changed everything. Laura Muir, who finished ahead of Bell in the trials, had decided to focus solely on the 1,500m in Tokyo. Bell was next in line in the 800m.
“I just broke down, I couldn’t believe it,” says Bell, who was the 376th and final British athlete selected for the Games. “I thought it was an athlete welfare call at first, that they were ringing to check if I needed any assistance.
“I was laughing, crying. It was an incredible whirlwind of being so low to then shoot so high.”
The whirlwind was only just getting started. Bell had seven days to prepare for Tokyo. She even managed to lower her personal best time in an 800m race in Manchester two days before flying to Japan, confirming her inner belief that regardless of the trials, she was in the form of her life.
Bell landed in Tokyo shorn of the nerves and now imbued with a sense of having nothing to lose.
“It was a dream come true and I was going to just enjoy every single thing I did out there, every step I took,” says Bell.
She ended up taking a lot of steps, fighting her way through the heats on the Friday morning in Tokyo and the semi-final on Saturday evening, all the way through to the final three days later.
“All of a sudden I wasn’t even nervous,” says Bell, who qualified through each round as the fastest loser. “I was when I was stood on the startline, don’t get me wrong, but that’s healthy.
“With the short build-up to the Olympics I had, I wasn’t nervous at all, because all the pressure had gone. I wanted to make the most of every opportunity I got, and I think I did that, I think I grabbed it with both hands.
“I went in with nothing to lose. I run well when I’m relaxed and happy and I was in an environment where I was able to do that. I was in the shape of my life.”
The semi-final was the performance she is most proud of. Going into the championships ranked 14th in the world, the semi-finals would have been an acceptable achievement.
“I’d say I would have been content, yes. But that semi-final, the way I tactically raced it is the race of my life.
“That was the most sensible, shortest route and it was the second fastest time I’d ever run. I was running it as my final in case that was my last race so I could say I left it all on the track.”
Bell was in the final though, one of three British women in the last eight athletes standing.
Keely Hodgkinson, a student at Leeds Beckett, won silver for Great Britain.
Bell, having already exceeded expectations, hung on for seventh. “What I learnt in these championships is you don’t have a crystal ball, you don’t know what’s going to happen in that final,” says Bell, who clocked one minute 57.66 seconds in the biggest race of her life, a new personal best.
“So there’s no point spending the days between races worrying or imagining how it’s going to be because when you’re on that startline, you’re already going to put yourself through those emotions anyway, so why drain yourself of that beforehand?
“Race-wise and tactics-wise, I didn’t even discuss with my coach what I was going to do.
“I knew it was going to be fast, I knew what I was capable of time-wise so just focus on that. I was going on instinct.”
Three weeks removed, the memories are vivid, the pride, enormous.
“It’s wonderful to look back on,” she beams. “The walk to the track, the smells; I remember everything.
“I just feel like I’ve found an inner peace. I’m so happy, fortunate, and humbled that I was a part of it.”
Through it all, Bell had a constant companion. Dame Kelly Holmes the 800m and 1,500m Olympic champion of 2004 was in regular contact via text and voice messages, offering little nuggets of ‘wisdom’ as Bell describes them.
“Kelly was 33 when she won the double in Athens. If that’s the case then I’m just getting started,” says Bell, who will concentrate on the 1,500m to double her options ahead of a busy 2022 including Commonwealth Games, World and European Championships.
“Age is a lazy stat to me. If you’re fit, you’re in one piece and you’re progressing, age shouldn’t be a limitation.
“Part of me thought I might call it a day when I got back, but I’m really eager to keep pushing.”
The whole six-week period, from desperate lows to enormous highs has left her hungry for more.
Bell does not expect to get funding despite her Olympian effort. Age, that ‘lazy stat’, she knows is against her when team-mates like Hodgkinson are winning silver medals at 19.
But in a way Bell has proven she does not need it. A big heart will outrun a big bank balance.
Team GB won 65 medals in Tokyo but the 376th and final member of their team provided one of the most uplifting stories.