This is what it takes to be a gold medal sprinter | Dina Asher-Smith

The attention after winning gold in Doha was amazing – but success really begins by staying focused

I love being the hunter. The one in pursuit. In training, I’ll latch on to the boys and chase them down. Even when I was younger, I tended to race girls who were older than me – at 17 I was racing 30-year-olds. It’s where I’m comfortable. But the hunter can go on to become the hunted. And this summer at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, I won gold in the 200m. At 23, I became the first British woman to win a world championship sprinting title.

I had no idea there was so much excitement back in the UK after my win. Growing up in Orpington, southeast London, and training for years with the Blackheath & Bromley Harriers, I never once imagined the fuss that would come as a result of running fast. It’s a change I’ve had to mentally adjust to. The morning after the race, I was in the media tent and someone told me that I’d been mentioned in parliament and while that was, of course, lovely and exciting, I was so surprised. But I often have to separate myself from all the noise to keep focused on what’s most important to me.

Track and field is a mental game. It’s about continuing to work and work when nobody’s watching. It can get repetitive and insular. You’re in your own little world, competing to be the person who can run the fastest in a straight line. My job is to take my body to a place where I think it can’t do any more and then keep going. To do that, I need to intimately know my strengths and weaknesses, and be willing to get better at the things I know I’m crap at. For me, I never used to be physically strong. I could run fast, but would wobble like a worm if I tried to do a push-up. In elite sport, even if you start to think you’re as good as you can be, you look for areas to improve.

People get caught up in embarrassment or shame when they’re not good at something, but I just don’t have that in me. I do have a voice in my head that tells me if I’m not good at things, but it doesn’t make me feel negative about myself. I use it to identify where I can improve and then I just keep going to training every day.

Leading into a major championship, I go into my own world for the four weeks beforehand. It’s something I’ve learned through sprinting. When you know everything’s riding on 11 seconds, whatever’s distracting you – whether it’s some boy not texting you back (not that that’s something I think about often!) or a friend being angry with you – you clear your mind of it until an appropriate time. As a race is about to start, all I’m thinking about is winning and the things I can control. Thoughts like, “Oh, that headwind is hard,” are legitimate, but if I can’t change it, worrying about it won’t help me. We have a saying, “Control the controllable.”

I live for the moment just before a race in a big stadium. When we’re all standing on the line, I feel the pressure and I’m all over it. Even when I’m watching football, my favourite bit is the penalties. In those seconds, you get to see what people are made of. For spectators, sprinting is one of the most intense sports events because the margins are so small. For us competitors, there’s really nowhere to hide from the work you haven’t done. If you haven’t been eating right or if you’ve had a hole in your training, when the gun goes, it shows. And that benefits me because I work so hard.

A lot of my confidence comes from my relationship with my parents. I’ve also inherited personality traits from both of them that help me in my career. My mum is excitable and when I’m on the track, I have her fire – wanting to go for everything. I always know when I finish a race that I can turn around and find her in the front row, jumping up and down. My dad is more reserved. He has a cool exterior and that’s useful for me when I need composure. I know to look for him a few rows behind my mum.

Growing up, I was the only child in the house (I have a half-brother who didn’t live with us) and the three of us were tight knit. They saw that I enjoyed sport and I was fortunate that around their full-time jobs, they gave me opportunities to try whatever I was interested in. When I wanted to try golf, my dad bought me cut-down clubs and had me attempting to putt balls in the back garden. My mum used to play hockey with me outside the house. They took me to so many clubs and classes. I don’t live with them now, but we speak every day and I see them at least three times a week.

I started training with my coach, John Blackie, in my mid-teens. We met when I was eight as he ran the kids’ academy at my running club. Along with my parents, the three of them always emphasised that they just wanted me to be happy. They never pushed me too early or for their own egos. And, as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that’s unique. When running became serious, I knew that if it all stopped being fun for me, I could stop doing it. They put Dina the person before Dina the runner.

As my career’s progressed, making difficult decisions has helped me understand myself better. I broke my foot in February 2018, five months before the World Championships were due to take place in London. I knew that the rehab should take six to 12 months, but I also knew that I really wanted to run in front of a home crowd. I spoke to my team about doing the rehab in two to three months. I was risking causing career damage to my foot. But I knew my body healed quickly and my doctor told me that while it would be physically and emotionally hard, he thought I could do it. I meticulously calculated my decision and although the cons outweighed the pros, I felt adamant that with support and being careful, we could get it right. It paid off.

Being as prepared as I can be is crucial as it keeps me calm and able to deliver in the moment. When I was studying history at uni I’d choose exams over coursework because I knew I could put the work in and perform under pressure. My degree also helped me keep what I’m doing in perspective. I was studying heavy things every day, like people facing prejudice because of their skin tone or sexuality, or women sacrificing their lives for others to have the right to vote. It made me realise how lucky I am that the thing that gets me most frustrated is somebody beating me on the track. While, yes, I make sacrifices – some easy, such as not drinking and going out, and some harder, like restricting the food that I eat – ultimately, what I do is entertainment.

While I take what I do very seriously, if it doesn’t go well, I don’t take it personally. What really matters to me isn’t going to change. Yes, the public might be disappointed and the newspapers might have a pop, but my parents and friends are still going to love me, and my coach is still going to be there. That knowledge allows me to stay relaxed under pressure.

Nobody goes into sport as a career for the fame, it’s too hard. Especially track. I do it because I love it and want to be the best. I never once thought I’d get on a train and be recognised by people and be asked to sign tickets. It’s lovely and I get to have a nice chat, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. So I make sure I take time for myself. I live on my own and for a day or two I’ll just do me. That means relaxing with facemasks and binge-watching Netflix. I’m currently watching Pose and RuPaul’s Drag Race (I’m so into drag culture), Greenleaf (a drama about family and deceit in an American super-church), and Bake Off. I keep thinking I’ll learn to meditate, but I haven’t got round to it.

My coach and I work in two-year blocks and always have a strategy to focus on – but it’s the Olympics next year so I’m not about to detail that in public. Everyone’s asking me about Tokyo, but I’m more focused on today. My friends told me they’ve booked flights and I’m like: “Well, you know you’re going before I do, boy!” I’ve got a winter of training to get through. And then I have to start the season, see how it goes, and then actually make the Olympic team.

It’s important for me to keep my hopes and dreams separate from other people’s. Mainly because they rarely align. People will project what they think my next step is, and I’m grateful everybody wants me to do well, but my next step has to be for me, not anyone else.


As told to Candice Pires

The GuardianTramp

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