The 200m world champion is leaving nothing to chance as she prepares for the biggest year of her career so far
Sport is littered with superstitions and rituals. Whether it’s tennis champion Rafael Nadal never stepping on the lines as he walks on to the court or basketball superstar Michael Jordan always wearing his college team’s shorts under his official kit in every professional game he played, stories abound of the sometimes extraordinary lengths people will go to in the hope of inviting good fortune.
Dina Asher-Smith, however, is not one of those people.
“I don’t like putting things in the hands of luck,” says the reigning 200m world champion. “I deliberately don’t [have any pre-race rituals or superstitions] because the one day you don’t have your lucky socks you can’t allow months of hard work to go down the drain.
“I get a lot of my confidence from hard work and knowing that I’ve done everything I can to be in the best shape I can be in.”
Therein lies the crux of the Briton’s approach to her craft. And it works. The former world junior 100m champion and European junior 200m champion has been doing remarkable things for some time but, in recent years, has sprinted her way on to an entirely different level.
There had been fifth-place finishes over 200m at the 2015 world championships and 2016 Olympics, while coming fourth at London 2017, six months after having a metal rod inserted into her broken foot, is arguably one of the most impressive performances of her career.
The European championships of 2018 – at which she looked a class apart in speeding to 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay gold in Berlin – were hugely impressive, too, but it was at the Doha world championships of 2019 where she had global lift-off.
A silver medal in the 100m (not her favoured event) in a British record time of 10.83 at the Khalifa Stadium was followed by another national best (21.88) and the 200m gold medal she had dreamed of. Becoming her nation’s first ever female world champion sprinter rounded off a year in which she also became Diamond League 100m champion.
Yet the 25-year-old is not one to dwell on her achievements, as was perhaps best highlighted by a relatively recent catch-up with a friend she had not seen since Doha.
“She said ‘congratulations!’ and I was like ‘what for?’” I forget, a lot, and at the end of the day those titles have been won but it doesn’t change what’s going to happen in the future.
“The next season is a clean slate. Just by having a title you don’t get a 10-metre head start – you’ve still got to do the work.”
Just by having a title you don’t get a 10-metre head start – you’ve still got to do the work
This year has begun well, with a 60m indoor PB already in the bag, but the main target is, of course, the Tokyo Olympics. World and European championships, not to mention Commonwealth Games, opportunities will quickly present themselves thereafter before the Paris Olympics of 2024 roll around.
There are no shortage of training incentives and Asher-Smith has no problem with rolling her sleeves up. Her work ethic hasn’t altered, but there are some subtle, albeit significant, differences now.
“I don’t think my attitude towards training has really ever changed, except I think that as I’ve gotten a bit older – if I’m being completely honest – I’ve become a lot more relaxed. But I think that’s also a sense of security in where you are,” she says.
“When I was younger – about 17, 18, 19 when I was doing very, very good things for my age – there was definitely a sense of ‘I’m happy but oh my god I’ve got to keep this up’. It’s not necessarily a bad motivating energy but that was definitely the energy.
“That’s fuelled out of tending to surpass your own expectations quite often and then suddenly [feeling] ‘I hope I can continue this because now everybody’s expecting this’.”
She adds: “I’ve always been a hard trainer so that’s never changed. I want to win.
“I don’t need to catch up, I don’t need to prove anything. I just want to get better and what will be will be – that’s my mentality now. I’m far more chilled which, overall, definitely helps a lot.”
John Blackie has helped, too. The role of Asher-Smith’s long-time coach – she has worked with him from the age of eight – cannot be overstated and his name crops up time and again during our conversation.
“I’m going to be indebted to him for the rest of my life,” she says. “He’s so patient, he’s so giving and he’s very intelligent and knowledgeable about what he does. He’s always giving me new skills to learn.
“I also, hand on heart, know that he cares about me Dina the person before Dina the athlete.”
That aspect of the relationship has been another vital factor, given the rapid rise to fame which has accompanied Asher-Smith’s achievements. The first time she recalls being “on the cover of anything” was when English Schools victory put her front and centre with AW in 2013.
Now the interview requests and red carpet invitations are many, the public profile so much higher. It has taken some getting used to.
Asher-Smith might appear to the outsider as a ready-made star, but there has been some hard work required when it comes to life away from the track, too.
“John has known me forever and he knows that adjusting to getting high profile was definitely not something I’d ever thought I was going to have to deal with,” she says.
“I talk a lot now but I could be quite shy when I was younger and I used to get overwhelmed very easily – not necessarily in crowds but in surprising situations and stuff like that – so John was very good at managing those for me.
“I’d be very shy and very ‘deer in headlights’ at anything that was just too much for me.
“He’s been very good at talking those things through. When you’ve got someone like that who understands you, you can take your time.”
Nobody is really in track and field to get famous. It’s way too hard for people to be here just to be famous – you have to love it, you have to want to be the best at what you do
But does that mean the last couple of years have been hard to deal with?
“Definitely. If I’m being completely honest, I never thought that I was going to be famous. I never thought that I’d be a world champion. I’ve always wanted to be a world champion, don’t get me wrong, but you have your dreams when you’re younger and, suddenly, you get there.
“It was a dream that I really wanted and I worked really hard for but I always say nobody is really in track and field to get famous.
“It’s way too hard for people to be here just to be famous – you have to love it, you have to want to be the best at what you do.
“You have to want to be a student of your sport, you have to want to improve and all these things.”
She adds: “The idea that suddenly I was high profile was something that definitely took some getting used to.
“I went from someone who was kind of shy, easily overwhelmed to getting comfortable with that and then being put in a situation with something I hadn’t really expected.
“I felt like ‘oh, it still makes me a bit nervous’. And then, in the middle of that, having to compete again and keep succeeding.
“My life has changed a lot over the past two years. It’s nice, obviously, I’m not going to change it – I’m a world champion and it’s fab – but it’s definitely something that I didn’t really expect when I came into it.
“I just want to run fast so it has been a big adjustment but it comes with the territory and it’s definitely a learning curve. You’ve got loads of world and Olympic champions who aren’t super ‘high profile’, so it [becoming famous] is not a given and that’s why it was not expected.”
In Olympic year, that spotlight is only going to intensify. Asher-Smith, without doubt, has a shot at her sport’s ultimate prize and she can expect to be the centre of attention when it comes to the British team.
There seems little chance of the extra scrutiny knocking her off course, however.
“You have to tune it out,” she says. “With expectations I’ve always been pretty cool and pretty chilled in a weird way. People always expect things – it’s sport and that’s the entertainment [business] we’re in.
“If you’re a singer they expect you to sing in tune and if you have people that like you they will want you to win and that’s just how it goes. That is the same across all entertainment industries.
“It’s never been a really humongous thing for me because – and again this is thanks to John – we have our own goals and expectations that we keep with just us. That’s probably what I’m more attuned to rather than everything else.
“Not everyone understands some of the things that you go through – they won’t know if you were injured or not, they won’t know if you’ve had personal struggles or not – so the external expectations might be completely different, either below or above what you can actually achieve within you.”
Coming full circle and a return to theme of hard work, Asher-Smith is currently to be found laying the foundations which she hopes will enable her to hit her intended targets – the base from which can spring a feeling like no other.
“You feel invincible,” she says when asked to explain the sensation which occurs when everything falls into place on the track.
“Whether you are invincible or not depends on whether someone is faster than you but you do feel good within yourself.
“When you’re getting into shape and when your body starts to wake up – typically just before a major championships – you do feel invincible but that’s the whole idea of everything clicking in confidence. It feels very good.”
She adds: “I just want to run faster – I think I can go faster – and that’s it, really. I definitely want to go on and do more but that requires hard work and focus.”
» This interview first appeared in the January issue of AW which is available by clicking here