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Hugo Milner – the breakthrough ‘newbie’ chasing Olympic selection

He's only been in the sport for two years, but Hugo Milner has his eyes on a spot at Paris 2024.

Chief Correspondent
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After just two years in the sport, Great Britain’s Hugo Milner arrived at Saturday’s supertri E World Championship with a World Triathlon Cup win last year, and an impressive victory last month over two-time World Triathlon champion, Vincent Luis, at the Europe Triathlon Cup in Quarteira.

Shortly after qualifying from the heats – he would go on to finish eighth in the final – I spoke to the Harvard University graduate about his rapid progress and his dreams of making the Olympic Games. In two sports.

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Back to where it started

The supertri E and under its previous branding, Arena Games, format may be very new in triathlon history terms, but it was pivotal to Milner even starting his multisport journey. He explained:

“That’s right. It was just after lockdown and I’d just finished my time at University, and I was competing in Track & Field and Cross Country there. During lockdown I was out on my bike every day and I used to really hate swimming… but during lockdown when the pools were closed, I realised that I actually really missed it.

“When the pools then opened, I just swam every single day. I just got into the habit of swimming seven or eight kilometres every day.

“I remember watching supertri and I was thinking, ‘wow, that’s cool’, so I started giving triathlon a go. I think the nice thing about supertri is that you can see everyone’s stats, you can see their heart rate, their power, their times in the pool and treadmill splits, so it’s quite easy to see what you need to do in training. I thought I could work towards it, so it’s a dream to actually be here racing.”

Hugo Milner, supertri E World Championship London 2024
[Photo Credit – supertri]

Making progress in the water

Fourth at the European Cross Country Championships in November, Milner’s top level running credentials are evident. He was swimming a lot during that post-lockdown period, but what degree of performance swim background, if any, did he have?

“Not very good to be honest. I did a bit of swimming when I was about seven years old, at City of Derby, but I quit swimming when I was about nine. I didn’t enjoy it, I was doing a lot of other sports at the time and I always got nosebleeds in the pool. I was just so skinny and got really cold, so it just wasn’t a good fit.

“Just after lockdown I was swimming at my local David Lloyd [Ed. a UK chain of health clubs] and I realised that I was just getting in and swimming. I knew that if I could work on my swim, I could be one of the best in the world in triathlon. My running was already there, but I had no idea what to do.

Hugo Milner, supertri E World Championship London 2024
[Photo Credit – supertri]

“That’s when I contacted British Triathlon, and they put me in touch with Steve Lloyd in Nottingham and he’s my coach now and has been for the past two years. It changed my view on swimming completely. I was in the pool for two hours every day, I had sessions to do, they gave me drills, we were doing sprints, doing workouts. It improved my swimming massively, and I went from swimming around 5:30 for 400m freestyle to probably about 4:10 now in the space of a couple of years.

“I remember competing here [Ed. London Aquatics Centre] maybe 10 years ago at the Schools Biathlon Champs. I swam 2:24 for 200m, and I think today I was maybe 2:04, so 20 seconds faster and I’m doing a triathlon. It’s cool to see the progress.”

Playing catch up: “I’m 10 years behind”

Hugo is having to learn on the job and do that fast. The result is some incredible breakthrough performances, but also inconsistency. It’s something he’s aware of, but thinks the best is ahead of him.

“Absolutely. It’s frustrating at times, because with my running I found that I was super consistent and rarely had a bad race, but then coming into triathlon it was just so inconsistent, and I still am. I’m either going to come 52nd one week or win it!

“There are so many factors like the course, how the swim goes with the physicality and all of that. It’s a bit hit and miss, but I’m working towards being more consistent. Now I’m starting to get these breakthrough results where I’m getting the confidence to make the chase pack, to make the lead pack, and I think it will only get better because considering I only started two years ago, I’m 10 years behind most of these guys.

“I’m fairly confident that this is just the start and excited for the years ahead.”

Men's podium at 2023 World Triathlon Cup Miyazaki
Men’s Podium at World Triathlon Cup Miyazaki 2023 [Photo Credit – Janos M Schmidt/World Triathlon]

Olympic ambitions? Absolutely.

With Alex Yee already selected, the British Olympic men’s team for Paris 2024 has just one spot remaining and despite his inexperience, Milner sees himself in the mix to challenge for it.

“That’s the plan. If you’d said this time last year that there was the possibility of Olympic selection I’d have been absolutely shocked. I think now that I’m making progress, I realise that I can compete with the best.

“It’s a shame that we do only have two spots and obviously Alex has one of those. It’s going to be really close for that final spot, and obviously it’s probably going to go to somebody that can focus mostly on the Mixed Relay. I don’t think you can write me off just yet, I’ve shown today that I can do the super-sprint stuff, it’s just that a lot of the training I do is focused on the Olympic distance and the longer stuff. I think my strength is probably Ironman to be honest (!), so maybe that’s a possibility one day.”

Hugo Milner 2023 World Triathlon Cup Miyazaki Win
Hugo Milner wins World Triathlon Cup Miyazaki [Photo Credit – Janos M Schmidt/World Triathlon]

While you can be chasing Olympic dreams, that doesn’t mean that you can automatically simply show up at the key selection races. I asked him about his hopes and plans between now and the early June selection.

“To be honest, if I get into the races that I want to and I get the opportunity to show what I’m capable of and I don’t make the Olympics, then I’ll be fine with that. Obviously I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll think at least I gave it a go. At the minute though, it scares me to think that I won’t get into the WTCS races like Yokohama or Cagliari, and so not even get the opportunity to show that I can podium at a World Triathlon Series race. It scares me so much.

“I’m currently 11th on the waitlist for Yokohama, so I’m hoping I can get a start there as I think it will suit me. I feel really confident in my run, so if it does come down to a run race I feel like I’m one of the best in the world for triathlon. I just want that opportunity and I’m hoping that I get it. Making the final today should get me enough points to be on the start list for Cagliari, but I’d also like to do Yokohama, so only a couple more races really to decide it, I just hope to get the opportunity.”

Options are open

If he doesn’t make that Yokohama roll-down, or the rankings work against him for Cagliari, there is another route that the talented Derby athlete could take. I asked if Los Angeles 2028 in triathlon and / or running could be on his radar… but an attempt at making the track team could come next month.

“We’ll see. If I don’t get into Yokohama than I’ll probably do the Olympic 10,000m trials on the track. I think the standard has been moved back to 27:20, which is a bit more realistic. There’s still a lot of work to put in, but it’s possible. My dream is to go to the Olympics, in whatever sport it happens in, that’s the goal.”

To give some context of how tough that bar would be to meet, Alex Yee clocked 27:51.94 at the same Parliament Hill event when winning the British Championships in 2018.

From Derby to Harvard

There’s no doubt in my mind that both routes – triathlon and track – are tough challenges if the Olympic Games is the goal for 2024. If that gets delayed for four years however, Milner has plenty of affinity for the USA, having spent several years on the other opposite coast to Los Angeles, graduating in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard University.

I finished by asking him about how that route from Derby to Boston came about.

“I kind of knew after I finished my GCSEs that I wanted to go to America. A lot of my friends went on running scholarships to America, so I just knew that was the thing to do. I remember doing well in my GCSEs and I was in contact with the coach at Harvard, and we just developed a relationship for a couple of years before I applied, and then it was a real shock to get in.

“I went there in 2017 and it was meant to be a four year course. I had lots of ups and downs with injury, so didn’t get to show my true potential, and then COVID happened and so the last year and a half was online from home in the UK. It was a bit of a shame to finish like that, but at the same time it gave me a little more time to focus on triathlon with the swimming and cycling – and so in one way it has helped me quite a bit.

“That was a great experience and I made friends for life there and still keep in contact with a lot of them. One of the supertri races there this year is in Boston, so it will be great to go back and see everyone.”

Before then however, will it be Yokohama, Cagliari or perhaps Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath? We’ll be following the Milner journey.

Hugo Milner Carl Lewis Liverpool Cross Challenge 2023
Hugo Milner and Carl Lewis after the Liverpool Cross Challenge [Photo credit: Steve Milner]
John Levison
Written by
John Levison
TRI247's Chief Correspondent, John has been involved in triathlon for well over 30 years, 15 of those writing on these pages, whilst he can also be found commentating for events across the UK.

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