Dina Asher-Smith

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Last updated 06 September 2015

 

Dina Asher-Smith

 

Here is the full script of an interview given by Dina Asher-Smith in June 2015 at Norman Park to Wilf Orton. The text will be reproduced in abridged form in an article for the Gazette aimed to be printed in September 2015.

 

Interview with Dina Asher Smith, Norman Park 25 June 2015

 

Let’s start then. For the record you’re Dina Asher Smith…and since 2009 you’ve been setting records and gaining titles at all age levels. In 2009 you set an U13 world best in the 110 metres, were the English Schools  U15 200m champion in 2010, the European Junior Champion in 2013, the world Junior Champion at 100m in 2014 and last month at Hengelo, although finishing second to Dutch sprinter Daphne Shippers, you broke the British 100 metres record set by Montell Douglas in a time of 11.02 seconds

 

 

So Dina in breaking that record you remarked that you weren’t sure if you had a good race until you saw the time. Do you instinctively know if you’ve had a good race or not?

 

To be fair you always know if you’ve had a technically good race or not but the time doesn’t always follow on what you thought happened. Sometimes you can run an abysmally bad race but because it was one those high pressure situations you end up running quite quickly. I wasn’t entirely happy with the technical aspects of the race. In the first few strides it wasn’t going the way I wanted it to go but this time it didn’t follow through to the time which is what I was grateful for.

 

At Hengelo you came second to Daphne Shippers the local girl. Is position all that important then compared with how you think you ran the race?

 

I was more  happy with the time than with the position. The way I ran the race wasn’t ideal or the way I’d like to run 100 metres, and there were lots of things I could improve on, but I didn’t mind coming second to Daphne who is an amazing athlete. In an ideal situation I would have won that race at Hengelo However the time of 11.02 was a new British record and a personal best which I was over the moon with.

 

In the current climate with British athletics being more successful in major championships, is there a danger that winning is really everything and that nothing else matters?

 

No it’s not, that is outside the major championships winning isn’t everything, but when you go into a major championships people will, even if they also remember second and third remember most who came first and was Olympic champion. But in major championships you have lots of checkmarks to hit before you can become Olympic champion. Those athletes who run those races either perform well under pressure, or they are able to execute their races as close to technical perfection as possible in that high pressure situation, and that’s what makes an Olympic champion.

So yes, winning is probably everything, that hasn’t changed throughout time, but to get there you have to have your eyes on being technically efficient and executing your race properly.

 

As a sprinter…what do you think constitutes good sprinting technique as opposed to middle distance runners?

 

Well there’s so many things that makes good technique but at the end of the day it all comes down to efficiency. In a sport where one hundredth or a thousandth of a second can separate you from a medal or none.. you must be able to replicate technique in high pressure situations.

If you are an athlete who knows what technique is good and works hard to get it right that’s fine. But if you can’t produce that under pressure and you absolutely fall apart then there’s no point in training so intensely for something you know you can’t replicate so you have to aim to be comfortable with what you’ve got. You need to work towards replication and to be able to produce it in high intensity situations what constitutes good technique is starting well and getting up really quickly…low heel recovery from out of the blocks ensuring that there is as much power put into the ground as possible. When you’re up and running keep good form and watch that the amount of time your feet are on the ground is as short as possible….Just keep running quickly.

 

Do you have a particular form of start coming out of the blocks?

 

Well..not particularly….I just employ a general start. How much power you can put into the first few steps separates good runners from those who finish strongly.

 

What makes a good relay team, one that actually runs together without risk of disqualification?

 

Obviously you’ve got to mix speed and skill. What we’ve realised as a team for GB that if you have the best sprinters in the world but can’t get the baton round efficiently there is no point competing…bad changes are far more costly than any slow runners. But if you go into an Olympic situation and say the Americans have got five people who can run 9.8 seconds and you’ve got 5 people who can run 10.5 then you’re not really in competition. It is a mix of both but on balance skill comes out on top.

 

The British sprint relay team of 2008 tragically missed out in the finals in Beijing by coming out of their zone on changeover. How could that be avoided in future?

 

Unless you’re actually in that situation it’s hard to comment on it. I wasn’t in the Bird’s Nest then…and  different stadiums (such as the Bird’s Nest) have their own peculiar atmospheres. As an observer it’s all so easy to watch the playback tape and make a superficial judgment on how ‘that’ person came out of the zone on the baton change…but in reality in high pressure situations it becomes quite difficult.

When you’ve got 8 girls running in full pelt into a changing zone you’re bent back-wards looking upside down for this little spike on the line and with tens of thousands of people screaming vociferously, you’re listening for one voice to shout out ‘hand’ and 8 people doing that at once, and the crowd shouting as well, you can imagine that it becomes quite difficult Never mind that this is an Olympic final and this is the defining moment of your career

It’s hard to execute a relay baton change properly and despite the fact that you train as best as you can, you really can’t train for a scenario in an Olympic final, that is you can’t replicate the tensions…

Maybe it’s avoidable, but then it’s very easy to analyse…to criticise if you’re not there, so I’m not in any position to comment on it, but when you’ve got a fraction of a second to do it, it really is hard.

 

Moving on to your formative years in the Bee’s Academy. How did that influence your athletic development?

 

The Bees Academy influenced me a whole lot. What I learned from the Bees Academy was you’ve got to have fun at the beginning and it was about having fun, trying out everything, making new friends. As you get older and later on in the harder races you’ve go the pressures of competition on your head something of the fun gets lost. I’m quite grateful that I’ve kept that with me. Although I consider myself a decent runner I still do athletics because it’s fun…If you’re in a position where you’re not having fun you need to remind yourself that you’re here because you enjoy the feeling of racing…the fun element. When you do those long crocodile runs, ok they hurt but everyone else feels like that when they’re doing it hurting together but they’re all giggling and enjoying it.

 

Talking of John Blackie..as a coach. What would you say are the qualities you most admire in him?

 

I’ve known John for years. Well there are so many, but I’ll give you the top three.

Firstly, His intuition- John makes an effort to get know each individual well and how he gets to know us through his non verbal queues…John can sense what were thinking and feeling. He’s very good with words and knows what to say and what not to say. He knows us all and what makes us tick. He can sense what you’re thinking and feeling and that’s very important with a coach. Certain queues can fire up one person and make another petrified, and he knows exactly what to say to different ones, how to get your adrenalin flowing and how to calm people down.

Also he won’t lie to you…he’ll be completely honest and knows what to do.

Secondly, his experience. It’s vast he’s seen people come in and come out.…he knows what works and what doesn’t…with John’s experience behind me I know what I’m doing and doing it for a reason which makes the coach/athlete partnership better.

Thirdly his flexibility..when things go wrong he knows what alternative plan to use.

 

You’ve mentioned that in training you’ve identified areas where you can improve. What are these?

 

My strength, not necessarily my running strength but general muscle strength in particular and conditioning. If you think about it for a 200metre sprint I’ve got 22 to 23 seconds and the muscles are going at maximum, all out, nothing else to give which is quite taxing. If I do that three times a day or over two days it’s quite tiring. To get up to a world class level what I’ve focused on is to build up your muscles and get my strength up. Also I increase the general efficiency as to how I run. I wasn’t an absolute shambles before but one can make yourself technically efficient in order to make sure that you’re not wasting time or energy in the race.

 

Last year you unfortunately sustained a hamstring injury . Is the prospect of injury a constant source of concern for you?

 

It isn’t a constant concern. Every sprinter is protective of their hamstring and knows that the hamstring is one of the most problem areas because of the nature of our sport and the nature of the movements that we make….that’s not just me but most sprinters all over the world. You always know that there’s a risk maybe but at the same time that the body will tell you if it’s not feeling o.k….when I did my hamstring  I definitely knew that there was something wrong…hamstrings are a constant injury for sprinters but in terms of a constant worry when you listen to your body you’ll know there’s something wrong and is heightening but you still get over it.

 

You’ve set records and competed indoors as well as outdoors. Is there any difference between the two locations?

 

I don’t really think so. 60 metres is really a cut down version of the 100 metres. I don’t think that the skills are different. You just train for the 100 metres and let your training in the 60 metres feed from that.

 

Now on to your studies…what prompted you to read History at Kings?

 

I wanted to have the normal university experience as opposed to going of to college on a sports scholarship…. In my situation you can’t afford to dwell on what goes badly in either your training or your studies. If I had a bad training session I can’t beat myself up over it especially if I have essays to complete the next day, and if I had to get an essay in late due to training commitments there’d be no problem with the tutors at Kings.

But as I’m not on a sports scholarship, I can’t take the attitude that my essays can wait and  I can’t see any reasons to hand in essays late…I’ve got to work to deadlines! If anything goes wrong with my training I can concentrate on my studies, and if my work goes badly I can go off and train to clear my mind so the two things complement each other. It gives a chance of escapism from both of them. It maintains the work/life balance

 

What attracted you to your particular area of history?

 

For my first year I’ve done pretty much everything, medieval, early modern and modern but next year I’ll move more towards political history, ideas of western political thought, from Plato to about 1700, and quite a lot of politically charged modules such as European history the Napoleonic Wars, modern day China from 1910 to 1935…I haven’t learned the significance of the dates yet, they’re all a bit funny now! I’m doing more but can’t remember it all…but I’m doing more political history and finding it very interesting.

When you look at the history of political events you see in them a lot of similarity with modern times and it makes it easier to understand what happened in the past, that’s why I’m studying the political side of it as well. If you understand what’s happened in the past you can understand where we are and where we’re going.

 

As a history graduate I am interested in exploring the concept of virtual history or speculating what might have been. Do you do that?

 

Yes, of course

 

I once read Niall Ferguson’s ‘Virtual History’. It has lots of scenarios such as what might have happened if there were no American revolution or Russian revolution. Do you work out alternative scenarios?

 

Oh I do that all the time…yes this is all about causation…if you try to think about alternative scenarios, what might have happened, for instance if Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated at Sarajevo in 1914, then there’d be no First World War, no reparations for Germany afterwards, Hitler wouldn’t have come to power with the Nazis, Germany wouldn’t have been defeated and then recovered to the modern day. However there were tensions already in Europe, something else might have triggered it, there may have been different consequences…we might have lost and a different power balance might have emerged in Europe. Communism might not have sprung up, it might not have been such a threat. It’s fun but you can never take it too seriously and in the end it didn’t happen.

 

Yes.. and even if something different might have happened such as Napoleon winning the battle of Waterloo in 1815, the end result would be the same?

 

I suppose so….it’s fun but it didn’t happen.

 

Yes. For Napoleon to take advantage of such a victory he would have had to conquer Europe all over again but this time more of it would have combined to bring him down,  even America! France would have been devastated in the process, Prussia might have emerged earlier than it did as head of a unified Germany to fill the power vacuum and posed a threat to Britain’s commercial supremacy before the 1870s.

 

Yes, It’s fun to explore but if it can quickly turn into an obsession and can get out of control and can turn into cycles of ‘what if’, ‘but then’, ‘but this caused this’ and ‘this could have happened’. It’s like ripples and waves. But we can’t go into causations too deeply because we weren’t there.

 

In any case even if Wellington had lost that battle there’s no evidence to suggest that we’d all be speaking French, eating frogs-legs and driving on the right hand side of the road!

 

No, of course not!

 

Here’s an interesting proposition: can History, normally classed as a humanity, be regarded as a science?

 

It can definitely be regarded as a science because there’s so much scientific specific methodology that we have to apply to make valid historical conclusion. I recently did an essay on micro-history. Could it be regarded as real history? You have to use such broad evidence that’s not related to the event in order to build up an idea of that event. We read a text by Professor Natalie Zemon Davis of the University of  Toronto, who has gone into this using a wide variety of sources of records and is a proponent of cross-disciplinary history, which consists of combining history with disciplines such as anthropology, ethnography and literary theory.

Is micro-history real history? Once in a seminar we have to argue that if it was real history or not history. It didn’t follow the scientific pattern of real history…as in what we realise as science but it did because it did follow everything that happened but just did on such an extremely vague scale and that made it more fictional like literature rather than history….but you couldn’t argue against it because it didn’t follow the basic scientific foundations of what history really was which made it an interesting essay to write…..and something that really baffled me. I sat for ages thinking ‘what is the answer to this!’

I think that this ties in with the whole science and history question because yes, I think history can be regarded as a science because of the scientific methodology behind it but at the same time it has to be a humanity because it has so many biases and sides of the argument to explore. However science also has so many biases and sample investigations which have to be regarded so it too can be regarded as a humanity.

I don’t know. It’s a question which can go on forever…You can have giant debates that Oxbridge Dons will have to argue over for years to come.

 

On a more mundane level…What would you like to pursue after you’ve graduated?

 

I don’t know…I did once want to study academic law, do a history conversion course and move into law for instance but I felt that studying a history degree would be more interesting and I didn’t want to do a law degree,  But I think that law would be an interesting career from the practical side…..I really love history, reading stuff and analyzing it, and forming an argument. I might do further study, I might do athletics for a while…or law. I don’t know… it’s all up in the air…but I guess most people of my age are in the same boat.

 

Well, in my case and most people, I was like that at your age but now I work in the Law courts which is something I hadn’t initially expected to do.

 

Oh really…that’s so cool. I did work experience and shadowed a court clerk in the High Court. There was lots of running to and from court and getting documents out in time.

 

Well I’m a court clerk, have been for many years. Whereabouts in the courts did you shadow?

 

Chancery?...no, it was the one next to Lincoln’s Inn

 

Queen’s Bench? I’ve worked there in my time

 

Yes, that was it.

 

Meanwhile, you’ve got two big targets to contemplate over the next year or so…the World Championships at Beijing and the Olympics. I understand that when you were 10, you drew a picture of yourself competing at the Olympics. Do you have any particular ambitions?.

 

Well I’d just like to be there…everyone says it’s your ambition and you can do really but everyone forgets that being there and getting there is actually a struggle in itself… it’s just satisfying to be able to qualify for it.

You can run the qualifying times but you have to be in those positions (in the top three) to qualify and you’ve got to be fit and in form for the championships, so being there is underwhelming.. but quite a big thing. Getting there fit, healthy and running fast is the main thing. That’s the ultimate goal for two years but first there’s Beijing…I’ve got the trials first…and then after that I’ve got to be fit and fast when the World Championships come.

 

I’m guessing here that you’re one of two types of ‘athlete’. There are those who achieve instant success very early on, only to find the rest of their career is either an anti-climax or finishes prematurely, and then there are those who build up slowly and gradually, taking their time and achieve ultimate success right at the end or in their true prime.

 

I said in the Guardian that I wasn’t really thinking about a global medal yet even though I had been tipped for it by popular opinion. I’d rather be in a long career..I’m not in a rush. John’s influence is very helpful here. We’re looking at long term rather than short term goals.

 

Two examples of those types come to mind. For the former you have Rebecca Adlington who achieved instant success at Beijing in 2008 with a double gold haul, but decided to retire some time after London , and then in contrast Dame Kelly Holmes who had a long career, sometimes with set backs but achieved her double golds at its climax, everything leading up to that.

 

I’d rather have a long career and being with John helps since we’re working on long term goals rather than short term ones. Short term success is great but if you’re going to disappear off the face of the earth in a few months there’s no point pacing yourself…. It’s all about long term goals leading up to the ultimate one, whatever that is! I’m not in a rush, and am a pretty chilled person. It’ll come when it comes.

 

What’s the opposition going to be like to get selection?

 

It’s very stiff…you’ve got so many talented girls….all fantastically talented and we all want the same thing…all highly motivated and capable girls. It will be a great achievement to make the GB team for my sprinting at the Olympics next year.

 

Well I think that that covers everything. Dina thanks for taking the time in taking part in this interview and I’m glad that you have this patient attitude to success, which maybe will influence all those kids who want to follow after you to do the right things.

 

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