The expectations versus reality for summer 2020 were pretty stark all around. But consider the contrast for Dina Asher-Smith. The 25-year-old, who holds the record of fastest British woman ever, was supposed to be in Tokyo, bringing home the gold medal for Team GB with explosive performances in both the 100 and 200-metre sprints, cheered on by a 68,000-strong crowd. Instead, she was at home in Kent, ordering garden furniture, trimming hedges and marvelling at how pleasant the summer months can be in the southeast of England.
‘I’ve not had a summer in Britain since I was 15 and I didn’t know there was actually so much sunshine!’ she laughs. We’re talking on a grey Tuesday morning as England readies itself for another nationwide lockdown and already we’re reminiscing, misty-eyed, about the relative freedoms of last summer.
Dina (whisper it) quite enjoyed being grounded for once. The house that was more of a glorified storage unit became an actual lived-in home. She spent time with the friends she’d normally only speak to via WhatsApp, hung out with her parents and enjoyed cosy nights at home in front of RuPaul’s Drag Race – while posting the odd cute throwback bikini snap to the ’gram.
The immediate pressure may have been off but, ever the detail-oriented planner, Dina was already preparing for Tokyo 2021. ‘When the pandemic hit, it was like: right, okay, let’s make sure my brain’s okay,’ she says. ‘The first thing I did was to get a psychologist [one who’s in-house at British Athletics] because I’ve worked too hard for too long to have something like a pandemic ruin the next few years for me.’ Dina wasn’t racked with anxiety about the pandemic, nor struggling to cope with a dramatic deviation from the plan; she was, ostensibly, fine. ‘But if you don’t deal with [stress] at the time, when it’s your biggest moment – say, the Olympics – and you’re under scrutiny, [that’s when] those things [might] pop up.’
And it’s not just Tokyo 2021 (which, as this issue goes to press, is still set to go ahead in some form) she’s mentally training for. Dina’s five-year plan probably makes yours look distinctly unambitious. ‘We’ll have the Olympics in 2021; in 2022, it’s the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games, because our schedules have been condensed, and we’ll have the European Athletics Championships that year. [Then, in] 2023, we’ll have another World Championship; in 2024, we’ll have another Olympic Games in Paris; in 2025, another World Championship...’ she reels them off, counting on her fingers. ‘So, we’ve got five years on the go, which in track and field we have never seen before. And the only way you can put your best foot forward is by being in the right frame of mind.’
But what began as a sort of psychological insurance policy for Tokyo 2021 evolved into sessions in which Dina began to process the character gymnastics she’s been engaged in recently.
‘Over the past few years, my life has changed quite a lot. Because, believe it or not, when I was at school I was quite shy. But, obviously, you realise that being shy, unfortunately, is incompatible with being a high-profile sportsperson. Because people will take your shyness as either you’re trying to hide something, or you’re being mean, or being cold – and you just have to come out of your shell,’ she explains, voice low, choosing her words carefully.
Let’s not forget that Dina isn’t just a record-breaking athlete, but a much-loved and lauded British celebrity who sits front row at fashion weeks, stars in campaigns for the likes of Louis Vuitton and writes a column for a weekly glossy magazine. When you’re famous not only for your ability but also for your personality, there must be pressure to be warm, engaging, likeable. And while I get the impression that Dina has this stuff in spades, sharing the other sides of herself has taken work.
‘I spend my time talking [in sessions] about how I’m adjusting to being high profile because... it’s weird.’ She pauses. ‘I didn’t ever think I was going to be high profile; famous. Mainly, we just talk about how that’s going and the pressures around that... [it’s] definitely something I need help with, because I never expected it to happen.’
If the non-sporting aspect of her work requires the most concerted mental effort, her training and on-track pursuits require the bulk of the physical graft. For 48 weeks of the year, she’s training six days a week and, when we chat, she’s getting stuck into her gruelling winter training. ‘I’m on track Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, and go to the gym Monday, Wednesday and Friday – so some of those days are doubles, but, either way, [I train] six days a week and Sunday is a rest day.’
Before track sessions start, Dina and the other sprinters in the GB team do a demanding mix of press-ups, sit-ups, V sits, hip raises and squat jumps – a mere 90 reps of each. ‘That’s 450 – I just did the maths. That’s awful. Wow,’ she says, blinking dramatically and then breaking into a laugh. ‘When it’s this hard, you just turn up and you do what you’re told and you don’t overthink it.’ A universal lesson,if ever there was one.
This gruelling routine is essential for optimising her core strength and stability, so her body is resilient enough to cope with how hard and fast she’ll push it. The goal, she tells me, is to be built like a pogo stick (‘so whatever force you apply through the ground will just ricochet back up’), as opposed to a strawberry lace that will just collapse in a heap on the floor.
I chuckle at the reference and soon learn there’s a high chance Dina has sugar on the brain. ‘Healthy. Lots of protein. Lots of fruit, veg and fibre,’ she says, of her winter training diet, comically downcast. ‘I understand there are some sacrifices [to being a professional athlete], and most of it I don’t mind, but food? Food is the one that gets me.’ Dina – who, I learn during my pre-chat research, once made it her mission to eat her way around every restaurant in Soho’s Kingly Court (no mean feat) – recounts being out with friends who ordered Oreo milkshakes while she tipped a sachet of electrolyte powder into her water ‘for flavour’.
Still, despite having little room for manoeuvre when it comes to fuelling her body, she resists being hyper-restrictive and doesn’t have a set eating plan. ‘If you go to the Olympics, you don’t know what’s going to be on the menu and you don’t have control of that,’ she explains. ‘If [your diet] becomes one of those things that you’re hung up on, it’s not only unhealthy for you but, when it comes to performance, that’s another thing to chip away at your confidence.’
Fail to prepare
As interviewing strategies go, asking successful people about their failures has become pretty lazy – unless, of course, you’re Elizabeth Day, who’s centred the concept on her podcast How To Fail. So I’m almost apologetic when I enquire about her screw-ups. As it happens, Dina’s having none of it.
‘I don’t understand the concept of failure because what are you failing?’ she asks. ‘It’s life telling you: hold on a second, like, are you ready? Have you done the work?’ That was a lesson Dina learned after missing out on a place at her first-choice secondary school. ‘My mum was like: “Be honest with yourself, for the way that you did that test and the way that you were revising, did you deserve to get in?” And I was like, well, not really... I just didn’t do enough work to constitute an excellent result. And I need an excellent result to get in.’
While Dina got a place a week later, the lesson stuck and has served to make her failure- proof – even when she doesn’t win. ‘I’ll work to turn over every stone to make sure that I’ve done my best... and if I lose, obviously I’m frustrated – I’m a competitor! I will try to improve, but it means at that moment in time, I wasn’t ready to win and I needed to work.’ I think of Dina crossing the finish line at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha: arms pumping, feet flying, her whole being emanating immense power but also, simultaneously, ease. Ease she carries through as she accepts her winner’s bouquet and hugs her rivals, her face relaxing into a smile that’s both joyful and utterly unsurprised.
A dead giveaway of how deep our cover star’s confidence and self-belief goes is how passionate she is about passing it on to the next generation of would-be pro athletes, whether it’s chatting to 13 and 14-year-old girls when their sessions cross over at the Bromley athletics track she trains at, or speaking in schools. ‘The questions I always get asked are if I feel awkward, and what happens if I sweat, and do you feel embarrassed wearing this?’ she recalls. ‘I just always try to clear up their insecurities, like: no, no, you’re fine. Go and achieve your goals; who cares what you look like when you’re doing it!’
But Dina doesn’t dismiss these as expressions of juvenile vanity. ‘There’s a big drop off of girls who do sport when they’re about 13 to 15 or around that age, and everybody seems to be confused as to why. To me, it’s perfectly clear: I think at that age, when people become more aware of their surroundings and people start to look for who they are; what it means to be a woman... sport isn’t in that picture,’ she says. ‘They see the ideal of femininity projected to them and, as a young sportswoman, you look and think: so, am I opposite to that?’
The remedy, as Dina sees it, has a lot to do with visibility. ‘You have to show that being a career sportswoman is viable, is celebrated, is positive. [That] it doesn’t come with stereotypes; it doesn’t come with boxes that you have to fit...[and that] it’s not at odds with being a woman.’
Showing, as ever, is better than telling, and that’s where Dina knows she has a role to play; she recognises that representation is especially important when it comes to increasing sport take-up among Black girls. ‘When Serena and Venus were the only two Black women in tennis all that time ago, they were able to be pioneers. But now you’ve got Naomi Osaka, you’ve got Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens, you’ve got so many [Black] girls because [the Venus sisters have] shown, yes, this is a sport that, like, [they can play at the highest level],’ she explains. ‘Obviously, any woman can play any sport because talent does not discriminate, but opportunity does – and visibility does.’
Before we hang up, we talk about the struggle many professional athletes have when they stop being able to compete. She nods, explaining that this is something Gen Z athletes have been well prepared for by their coaches. ‘You always need to have not only something else to do and something else as a viable career, but also somewhere else to put your self-esteem and your identity,’ she explains. ‘It’s always going to come to an end and sport is very fickle. So, it’s best to have a solid foundation without it. It can be a big part of your life, but it shouldn’t be everything.’
So, what does Dina see herself doing after she’s done tearing up the track? ‘I haven’t got any idea,’ she says, simply. ‘I haven’t prepared myself [for something specific] because I prepare myself for anything, if that makes sense?’ I nod, though given this is Dina Asher-Smith, that ‘anything’ should probably be ‘everything ’. But that’s for the future – for now, it’s eyes on the prize.
Even as pandemic postponement rumours make headlines, she’s maintaining her laser focus on the Olympic Games this summer. No one is giving medals or sympathy, her management remind me just before this issue prints, to someone who fails to prepare due to the uncertainty. So, here’s saluting Dina's grit and guts – and keeping everything crossed that she gets her shot at glory.
You Might Also Like