A history buff and pretender to Jess Ennis-Hill’s national treasure title – meet Dina Asher-Smith, the fastest woman in British history
Words: Lizzie Pook
Photography: Tom Van Schelven
There’s a slice of Victoria sponge the size of my skull sitting on the table between me and Dina Asher-Smith, and she is sizing it up like a lion might size up a baby gazelle. “Oh my lord,” she says, covering her eyes and banishing the temptation from her sight. “It’s desserts, I just can’t resist desserts. Oh, and Domino’s pepperoni pizza. Barbecue base. That’s what I miss the most.”
It’s lunchtime at the north London photo studio where Asher-Smith has been flexing, jumping, squatting and proving generally lithe for Stylist’s cover shoot. There is salad, grilled chicken, fruit and nuts laid out on the table, but it’s the forbidden bounty that’s occupying the 20-year-old Londoner’s mind right now. She has been on a strict training diet in the run up to the Olympic Games in Rio, and her willpower is being tested to the extreme.
“It sounds dumb, but when you don’t eat bread either, bread and butter on a side plate becomes the stuff of dreams,” she says longingly.
Since becoming the fastest teenager in history last year, beating a junior record that had stood for 35 years, Asher-Smith has become something of a powerhouse on the athletics circuit. In July 2015, she became the first ever British woman to run the 100m in under 11 seconds (at 10.99, Usain Bolt does it in 9.58, to give you an idea of just how quick that is) and that August she set a new British record of 22.07 seconds in the 200m at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing. Then, last month, she became the first British woman to win gold in the 200m at The European Championships in Amsterdam, finishing in 22.37 seconds.
Now she has been selected to compete for her country at the biggest sporting event on the planet alongside household names such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Mo Farah and Nicola Adams. Ranked in the world’s top 20 for the 100m and 200m, you could well see her in the final at Rio (she has chosen to focus only on the 200m, taking place on Monday 15 August, but faces stiff competition from the likes of Dutch 200m world champion Dafne Schippers, USA sprinter Allyson Felix and Jamaican champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce). Still, not bad for someone who only decided to take sprinting seriously three years ago.
Asher-Smith currently lives in Orpington, where she grew up with her mother Julie, a human resources manager and her father Winston, an engineer. Ever the over-achiever, she also juggles her athletics with studying for a degree in History at King’s College London (she got straight As in her A-levels last year in order to get in). It’s enough to make anyone feel like a lie down, but from what I can tell, Asher-Smith does pretty much everything turned up to 11. “I do get told off because I talk too quickly,” she says. “And I eat too quickly. And I write too quickly,” she laughs.
She is gregarious and high-octane on the shoot – regaling us with a story of when her friend tried to resuscitate her dead hamster with a straw and caterwauling her way through the Beyoncé back-catalogue on the stereo. But behind the typhoon it’s also clear there’s a real sense of focus to the athlete. At one point she even pauses, mid-shot, to study her toned physique in the mirror. “I do look stronger than last year,” she nods approvingly.
So what’s the secret behind her spectacular balancing act of sporty and smart? And how does she really fancy her chances at Rio?
You are officially the fastest woman in Britain and will be heading out to Rio with the country’s expectations on your shoulders. Are you good at dealing with that sort of pressure?
I don’t really see it as pressure actually, I see it more as opportunity. Everything in life, athletics in particular, is so transient. I’m just trying to make the most of what’s happening right now. I’d never try to ‘combat’ my nerves. They are vital. My coach John [Blackie] always says, “If you’re not nervous, you’re dead.” Of course I get nervous, I’ve trained hard, I’ve worked hard, I want it. But nerves give you that extra push, that adrenalin rush. I like nerves.
How do you feel about being one of the youngest members of Team GB?
I definitely think youth is an advantage because I’ve got the chance to look and learn. I’m not saying I’m going to run forever, but I’ve still got time to make mistakes. If you come into a sport at 25 or 26 you’re looking at starting to peak then, but if you’ve got no experience of international competition – unless you’re a freak of nature – you’re going to struggle. I’d rather have time to learn, mess up a bit, then when it’s time to go, know exactly what I’ve got to do to win.
Have you insured your feet?
Nope – that’s why I rarely wear heels: I’m the one responsible if something goes wrong. I worry about it all the time, running for a bus, for example. I’m a total adrenalin junkie but it’s just not worth it. Even if I’m at an awards show I’ll wear heels on the red carpet, then I’ll take them off under the table as soon as I sit down. I’m not taking that risk.
What made you want to get into athletics in the first place?
I remember watching the 2004 Athens Olympics on the telly and seeing all the athletes on the podiums with crowns on their heads – they looked like royalty to me. I saw the men’s relay team win gold and Kelly Holmes do so well; I saw them get emotional and thought, ‘I want to cry like that!’ I was also a box carrier [people who carry kit for competing athletes] at London 2012. I remember watching Jess Ennis-Hill win her final race [on Super Saturday] and thinking how incredible it was that millions of people who didn’t even know her could become so proud of her in that one moment. I was like, ‘I want to do that.’
You must have been brilliant at school sports day growing up...
Funnily enough, I was really bad at the egg and spoon race, because it requires concentration and patience, of which I have none. The three-legged-race, too – I’d just be trying to win and dragging my poor partner along behind me. Running was only really something I knew I could make a career out of when I went to the World Championships in 2013. I was put on the first leg of the 4 x 100m relay and we won a bronze medal. Shortly after that I was nominated for BBC’s Young Sports Personality of the Year. It was then that I thought I should probably start taking it a bit more seriously. Before all that I’d only really done athletics so I could put it on my UCAS form. I thought it would get me into a good uni!
Well, you’re at King’s College now. It’s probably surprising for some people that an Olympic sports star is so academic...
I know. But I’m also a historian who’s interested in sport. That’s probably quite odd too. I’ve always had an academic background though; always been interested in people and how things work. We are all products of what has come before us in history and I find that fascinating. Currently, I’m studying America from the 1500s to the Obama era; Napoleon and the French revolution (which is essentially lots of ideological stuff about democracy) and also modern China – specifically its transformation into a communist republic. One of my favourite modules is history and memory, which looks at how we remember traumatic events. Right now, I’m writing an essay on apartheid and Nelson Mandela. It’s really interesting to compare that to the Nuremberg trials in Nazi Germany and American slavery, and how each country has chosen to deal with their own traumatic events. Some ignore what has happened and some really embrace it.
Do you do anything slowly?
I actually have really long showers and hour-long baths. I love bath bombs. That’s my one chance to slow down.
You must have to be so disciplined to do both athletics and academia. How do you manage it?
I am very disciplined, but it’s not at all natural. I’ve had to train myself. Hard. I don’t enjoy the strict routine. If I could lie on the beach for the rest of my life, I would. I would not feel bad about that at all. I’m very, very happy to spend a day in bed. So for me to be so busy and to have to multitask is quite a struggle. But I’ve just got to do it. It’s how things work.
Do you ever find time to relax?
Occasionally, but not enough. I go to see my friends, chat to my boyfriend [a British athlete training in Jamaica], go to the cinema. Just normal stuff. Me and my friends actually love fine dining – probably not the most economically savvy hobby to have as a poor student. But every now and again we go for a really nice meal where we can chat, have a nice treat and try something new. That said, I only tried avocado for the first time last week, so I’m not about to become some food connoisseur any time soon…
Are there any other vices you’ve had to sacrifice besides Domino’s pizza?
I’m quite fortunate because I don’t actually like the taste of alcohol. Even liqueur chocolates are gross. So that’s really handy. I do miss socialising with my friends from uni though. I see them for dinner but then when they go out to parties – where, let’s face it, all the good memories are made – I’m like, “See you later guys, I’m off to bed.”
What’s more nerve-wracking, racing in front of a packed out stadium or doing a big presentation at university?
Doing a presentation at uni, definitely! Suddenly you’re talking in front of a professor who has written six books on the subject, students who all know just as much as you and you’re not concrete on anything – people can easily have better opinions that contrast yours. When you’re running, it’s all just about your physical performance. People aren’t judging your intellect.
Do you have any rituals that help calm your nerves before a big race?
When I do my make-up on race day, I like everything to be exactly right. I go through a process: foundation, powder, blusher, eye shadow, mascara, eyebrows, eyeliner, primer, fixing spray. Hair too – all the edges have to be perfect. Nails have to be done, everything has to be flawless. Make-up helps me get prepared and I think a lot of us sprint girls find that. With our sport, everything is about confidence and showmanship. A huge part of it is believing in yourself and believing that you can go out and do a good job. Make-up in that way feels like armour. I feel fierce and in control.
Do you cope well with defeat?
Oh yeah. I get beaten all the time [laughs]. But every single race you run, you never really lose. You can learn something new every single time. While I’m still young and I’m still on a learning curve I don’t mind getting beaten. Losing isn’t a bad thing. Well, I don’t love it, but it’s not a huge deal.
Your profile is really on the rise. Do you consider yourself to be a role model now?
I used to avoid that term like the plague. Personally, in my head, I’m still young and looking at role models myself. But I appreciate from an outsider’s point of view that I might be one because I am trying to balance the things in life that are really important to me. I do think it’s important for more young girls to have good role models – women who are trying to work hard and do something with their lives, who are not afraid of going out there and giving their all. Luckily, women’s sport is really rising in profile. We’ve still got a long way to go but it just gives young girls an extra option. I remember at school my friend wanted to play professional netball but it was never really considered possible. If she was a boy and she wanted to play professional football, people would have said ‘Go for it.’ Being a full-time sportswoman is a viable career path now.
Who are your idols?
[Six-time Olympic medal winner] Allyson Felix, without a doubt. She’s amazing. I raced her in Birmingham once and that was the most star-struck I’ve ever been. Normally, I’m calm and just acknowledge the big names and respect them. But this time I was just in the line-up going, ‘This is so cool’. Also Beyoncé, Lupita Nyong’O and Malala [Yousafzai]. I really admire people that genuinely work hard, who really believe in themselves and have triumphed over adversity – like Jess Ennis-Hill after not being able to go to Beijing because of injury [in 2010]. Shouldering all the pressure at London 2012 and winning, then having a baby, then winning races again in 2015. That’s a role model.
You’ve achieved quite a lot and you’re only 20. What else do you have on your bucket list?
Well, just moving out of my parents’ house would be cool. I also want to travel the world – go to Machu Picchu, the Grand Canyon, the Pyramids, to see the Parthenon in Greece. Bali looks cool. I want to visit Easter Island, to see the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef, too. My life is sort of mapped out with athletics right now, but tomorrow I could get an injury and never be able to run again. Nothing is certain. There are no guarantees. Nothing ever really goes to plan in life. I’m happy to go wherever life takes me.
Watch Dina Asher-Smith compete on Monday 15 August
Photography: Tom Van Schelven
Styling: Tom Gormer
Dina wears: all clothes, Nike
Hair and Make-up: Caroline Barnes at Frank Agency using Laura Mercier Cosmetics
Nails: Sophie Harris Greenslade at Emma Davies Agency using Opi
With thanks to Rida Studios