If it hadn’t been for an ice cream bribe, Dina Asher-Smith may never have become Britain’s fastest woman.
It wasn’t a desperate desire to be famous or even to be an athlete that inspired her to take up track and field. Instead, it was a friend’s promise of a frozen treat if she went along to a local running club when they were at primary school. Despite finding day one a challenge, she came fifth out of 400. Dina giggles as she recounts the day.
‘I was like, “This is the most horrendous thing ever,” and there was a point when I slowed down and said, “I’m so tired – can I stop?” And they were like, “No! You’ve got to keep going.” And that’s how I discovered track and field.’
She grins widely and laughs generously as she sits across from me at her favourite breakfast spot, a café called Otto’s in Sevenoaks, Kent, near where she lives.
Dina, in case you missed the memo, is the 23-year-old triple sprint champion taking track and field by storm. She can run 100m in a very uncasual 10.85 seconds. She currently holds the title of Europe’s fastest woman (and joint-fastest in the world with Marie-Josée Ta Lou), won three gold medals at the European Championships in 2018 and is the favourite to bring home gold in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
In short: Dina is fast. And at a moment in history where women are finally levelling the playing fields in sport – notably in football and netball – Dina has become the face of a cultural moment, one in which she epitomises strength, power and force.
So what makes an athlete of Dina’s level? Throughout her career she tells me she’s used the Japanese principle of kaizen, which means ‘change for the better’, to guide her through daily life on and off the running track. She says she discovered it by complete chance at 15 and ever since, she’s used her failures to help spur her on.
‘I feel like [kaizen] helps to keep you positive as well, because even when something happens that seems overwhelmingly bad, I still always try to pinpoint [a positive aspect], such as, “You improved, so when this is over, you’ll be better afterwards”,’ says Dina.
Perhaps she found this mindset of continuous improvement while at What`s Newtead Wood School for Girls in Orpington. I too attended What`s Newtead for sixth form (though I was two years above her, so we never crossed paths) and it was an environment where girls were taught to succeed – one in which ‘OK’ was never tolerated. I was stunned, if not a tad scared, by just how focused and studious everyone was. When I ask Dina about her time there, she says, ‘It was a very, very, very, very, very competitive school.’
Today marks five years since Dina left school. Sunday is her only day of rest, when she takes a break from the week’s training. As we sit eating shakshuka, her phone is noticeably buzzing.
‘Sorry, my phone’s blowing up because I started watching Game of Thrones yesterday…’ Dina is binge-watching the first seven seasons to catch up, and the WhatsApps are from her best friends (the same ones she’s had since school), who are all speculating what the new episodes will bring.
While it could appear that her career started by accident, Dina comes from a very athletic family. Her mum, Julie, who is now an HR director, played hockey competitively until the age of 30, at which point Dina came along. ‘My mum played until she was literally ready to pop with me,’ Dina says.
And even though her dad Winston, who is an engineer, didn’t play sports at the same level, he was a fan of the outdoors and had an adventurous spirit, something that Dina has adopted in her day-to-day life. ‘[Dad and I] used to go for long bike rides and Mum used to tear her hair out – you know, paranoid mum, because I wouldn’t be wearing elbow and knee pads.’
Dina’s parents are dedicated supporters of their only child, making it to every race. And she’s made sure not to move too far away from them (her parents live in Orpington, 30 minutes from Dina) and still sees them three or four times a week. As someone who recently started living on her own, I wonder if she ever gets lonely.
‘I think because I’m so social and literally spend every waking minute of my life [with other people], whenever I get home I’m like, “I don’t need to talk to anybody.” I chuck my phone in a different room and watch TV or go to sleep. I love it. I’ve always been perfectly comfortable on my own.’
Dina says she hasn’t faced explicit adversity because of her black womanhood, which she boils down to athletics being a category of sport where seeing people who look like her is commonplace. Athletics is also a sport in which the playing field is much more even for both men and women.
‘Maybe I benefit from being British,’ she says. ‘Maybe I benefit from being really petite and short and smiley. I can’t speak about what isn’t my experience.’
While Dina hasn’t directly faced inequalities on account of her gender, she would still like to use her place on the podium to be a force for change in increasing equality: ‘Sports are traditionally dominated by men, so I am big on giving things like netball more opportunity. At school, there were fantastic girls in the young England squads. But they couldn’t see [their sport] like I could. I could see that, if I developed track and field, I could go to the Olympics. It’s a job.’
Athletic schedules mean that Dina won’t be able to attend the FIFA Women’s Football World Cup or the Netball World Cup this summer, but she will be observing and supporting her sisters in spirit. ‘I’m really, really excited,’ she tells me, beaming. ‘Especially as the England teams are so incredible.’
As more people talk about and watch women’s sports – the BBC will broadcast extensive coverage of every football game during this summer’s FIFA World Cup – big brands are starting to put money behind them, which in turn will help to level the playing field.
Boots has become a sponsor for the women’s national football teams in the UK and Ireland, while Barclays became the first title sponsor of the FA Women’s Super League (which is the highest league in women’s football) with a deal worth more than £10 million.
Dina has seen this firsthand – most recently she was at Nike’s big kit reveal ahead of the football World Cup, which attracted a range of heavyweight names in fashion, including Adwoa Aboah and Naomi Campbell: ‘That was a huge moment for everybody involved – particularly the footballers,’ she says. ‘We were all there to support them because it’s about women, and that’s the most important thing right now. I felt very proud to be there. Nike had never unveiled the kit in that kind of manner before. It made it an iconic moment.’
Dina’s own sporting career has not been without complication: after breaking her ankle while playing hockey in 2009, her coach, John Blackie, who has been with her since day one, insisted that she stop playing any other sports and focus on track and field.
‘I was a centre-forward and somebody had passed the ball to me. The ball was coming towards me so fast, and my brain was moving slowly. I was like, “I’m gonna jump over this,” so I jumped, cleared the ball, but mistimed it, landed and cracked my foot.’
As Dina is someone whose sprinting ability can only be described as streamlined and totally purposeful, I was surprised to hear she can be clumsy. ‘Day-to-day, I’m so clumsy!’ she says. ‘I walk into stuff, drop stuff. My physio knows what my body looks like better than I do because I don’t look at my legs.
He’s always like: “Where did this scratch come from?”’ I ask Dina whether she could see herself playing another sport, such as tennis, but she’s quick to point out: ‘I would be crap at it because I have absolutely no hand-eye coordination whatsoever. I’d hit myself in the head with a racket.’
For now, she’s focused on the present and, while the typical tenure for a sprinter is around 30, she’s not ready to focus on a contingency plan just yet. ‘I would just like to run fast,’ she says.
But running isn’t her only passion. In 2017, she graduated from King’s College London with a degree in History. And when Dina isn’t working out six days a week and travelling the world for races, one of her great loves is fashion. Her favourite outfits allow her to channel new personas: ‘I like silhouettes that make you feel feminine and elegant but still show your body, without it being tight, tight, tight.’
Dina’s mum, who has been known to turn up to races in heels, might be where she gets it from. ‘I once made a bet with my mum that if I ran a certain time, she would get me a handbag.’ And it seems the fashion world loves Dina in return: Off-White’s creative director Virgil Abloh had her walk his SS19 show – which was heavily inspired by track and field – and she is no stranger to the front row at London Style Week.
Her race day looks matter, too. As she scrolls through saved images of hairstyles with immaculately gelled baby hairs, she tells me she plans to recreate the same looks during her matches this summer.
‘As [members of] the athletics community, we are pretty self-reliant; we have to be. If you want anything, you have to be able to do it yourself because sometimes where we compete, we’re in the middle of nowhere.
'There, they can’t do your hair, or there are no nail salons, so you have to be able to do it yourself. It makes you very good at those kinds of things – it means that if you wear make-up, you know which products will stick, or which mascara to wear that won’t run.’
She laughs as she recalls her less successful make-up moments: ‘If it rains, you look back at the picture and you’re like, “That looked horrific. I’m not wearing that again!”’
Dina’s positive attitude is nothing short of infectious. As we finish our breakfast, she offers to drop me off at the train station. Before we leave, I ask her what her life motto would be. ‘I’m one of those people who, when everyone says, “You can’t do that”, I’m like, “Yeah I can”. So my motto would literally be: fuck it.’
Nervously, she adds: ‘I don’t know if that can go in,’ worried that she’ll be seen to be speaking on behalf of all women athletes. ‘That’s a sprinter mentality: I’m here and, if it goes well, it goes well. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
Virginie Moreira at Saint Luke using Cloud Nine. FASHION: Jenny Kennedy. MAKE-UP: Ariel Yeh at Saint Luke using Dior Backstage Collection and Capture Youth. NAILS: Chisato Yamamoto at David Artists using Kure Bazaar. With thanks to Angel House Events.
This article appears in the July 2019 edition of LouisvuittonShop UK. to make sure you never miss an issue.