Liam Phillips Interview | “I Won't Ever Be Defined By Success at an Olympic Games"
Liam Phillips speaks World Championships, Tokyo 2020, and motivation after a brutal injury broke plans to break America
“Sorry I was a little delayed."
I'm speaking to Liam Phillips. The British BMX star is a few minutes late after complications at the hospital earlier in the morning. He’s been out of action since a freak accident saw him break his hand in Florida at his first race of the season back in February.
“I’ve got a K-wire in my hand that needs taken out. I was booked to go into the hospital this morning but they lost all my pre-op stuff so I had to go and get that done again. Needs must. It’s one step closer to getting back on the bike though."
For a rider who wore the rainbow colours of the World Champion in 2014 and became the only man to ever win back-to-back Supercross World Cup titles in 2015, Liam Phillips isn't the luckiest man in the world. Not when it comes to injuries, anyway.
Phillips famously broke his collarbone 10 weeks before competing in the London 2012 Olympics, before breaking it again just six weeks out from the Rio de Janeiro Games last year.
He also crashed out in ill-fated fashion in both of those races, and had just worked back to his best after 15 weeks of post-Rio rest (and a further 14 weeks of training) when misfortunate reared its ugly head again in Florida.
I ask how long it’ll be before he gets back on the bike. “In all honesty, I don’t actually know," he says.
“The issue is that I’ve got four fractures that are all fighting against each other for healing time. If you’ve got one fracture then the rest of the hand and wrist can accommodate it, but when you’ve got four, they’re all trying to recover. When I gain in one area I end up losing in another, which is proper frustrating.
“Breaking a collarbone is an absolute dream compared to this."
The plan had been to mix things up and race in the States this year, but the break in his hand means there will be no breaking America this time around. Liam’s new aim is to build himself back up in time to challenge for the win at the World Championships in late July.
The rider is always transparent about his thoughts and goals. He was refreshingly open about his hunt for an Olympic gold when we caught up with him before Rio, and he remains open about his disappointment in crashing out so early now.
“It was a disaster. There’s no other way of putting it."
“It was a disaster," he says. “There’s no other way of putting it. The biggest disappointment was just that I didn’t race. If I had raced and just wasn’t good enough that’s alright, but that I didn’t have the opportunity was difficult."
He admits that having already claimed every accolade in his sport except an Olympic medal, motivation in the midst of injuries can be as much of a battle as the recovery itself.
The adjusted focus on America was aimed at countering this, and Liam’s been taking on new challenges outside of BMX as well, opening up a coffee shop in Manchester with fellow Olympians Jess Varnish and Fran Halsall.
Within the sport though, it’s the lure of the rainbow jersey that he’s relying on to keep him fighting to regain his fitness.
“I needed a new stimulus after the Olympics. Going to America would have given me a new place to train, a new challenge and a new lease of life, really.
“My biggest frustration now is that I’m not able to fulfil my schedule, because I was really excited about it. Now I’m ultimately trying to come back from a super frustrating injury just to achieve something that I’ve already achieved [winning the World Championships].
"It’s a much more difficult place to come from, but if there is ever something that can bring me around it’s that rainbow jersey. Everything I do between now and July is going to be for that one race."
So are the Tokyo 2020 Olympics still lurking at the end of Liam’s long-term game plan? The one unchecked box on the list? Currently 28, the rider would still only be 32 years old by the time the Games come around.
“I don’t know about Tokyo," he says. “It’s in the back of my mind, but I won't ever be defined by success at an Olympic Games or not. It's important for me but it won't define me as a person or define my career.
“I'm really hungry to have more success at the World Championships. Ever since I started racing I've seen people wearing the rainbow jersey, whereas I'd already been racing for 12 years before BMX was made an Olympic sport. The Olympics doesn't have the same prestige in my mind as the rainbow jersey. There's an aura around that jersey. It transcends across cycling. If you wear that jersey you are the best in the world for 12 months.
“The Olympics means a lot to people that mean nothing to you, whereas when you win the World Champs and you wear the rainbow jersey it means everything to you, but it also means everything to the people that are actually closer to you. That's why it's got such a huge significance.
“It is getting quite tiresome having to train and get back from injury to ultimately achieve something that I've already achieved. That's a position I've never really been in before."
“I don’t know how long that [lure] will last for, though. It is getting quite tiresome having to train and get back from injury to ultimately achieve something that I've already achieved. That's a position I've never really been in before. Year by year you never know; [Tokyo] might become a higher priority or it might stay the same."
For the moment then at least, the focus for Liam is on recovering from one of the most frustrating periods in his record-breaking career so far in order to try and recover the rainbow jersey he last won in 2013.
After that, he’ll let the results pave the way and decide his future ambitions.
“I'm happy to race season by season. At the moment, my focus is to win the World Champs year on year and if I'm in a position where I'm capable of doing that then that means I'm in a position where I can win the Olympics as well.
“If I can do that this year, next year and the year after, and if I’ve still got that desire, then you're knocking on the door of Tokyo anyway."
The Olympic dream isn’t at a definitive end for Liam Phillips then. It’s just on the back burner, while he re-joins the ranks racing rainbow road.