Dina Asher-Smith: The British sprinter is busy making history

Equally at home on the track as she is in a lecture hall, young British sprinter has the world at her feet

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The Independent Online

Every sprinter is embroiled in a different narrative to their pre-race build-up. There are those who strut around with all the bravado they can muster, there are those that put on their best poker face to disguise feeling sick with nerves, and then there is Dina Asher-Smith.

Just 19 in December, she is currently the second fastest woman in the world this year, her back-to-back times of 7.12 seconds in the 60m in Karlsruhe last month only outdone by Murielle Ahouré, the World Championships silver medallist in the 100m and 200m.

But her preparations for that run entailed a very different warm-up as she desperately finished off two essays for her history degree at King’s College London: one on post-modernism, the other on the impact of the British empire on the First World War.

“To say I was surprised was an understatement,” she says of her times. “Everyone always says I look so shocked at the end of races but it’s just I never want to take it for granted. If I’d thought to myself beforehand that I would have run 7.12 seconds I’d have said ‘be quiet’.”

Asher-Smith, who won the 60m British indoor title on Saturday with a time of 7.15 in Sheffield, disguises her two talents, athletic and academic, well – almost laughing her way through any conversation about them. But she genuinely oozes an apparent lack of awareness of how good she is now and how good she could eventually become.

In Karlsruhe, for example, her personal ambition was merely to make the final and, two weeks on, the amazement of her subsequent victory has yet to wear off.

Trying to explain her mindset, she says: “I wouldn’t say it’s a lack of confidence as you have to have faith in your ability and training. It’s hard to explain really as it’s not that lack of confidence really but believing in myself a bit more.”

The last time athletics audiences saw Asher-Smith in action, it was in the 200m final at the European Championships. Her heat had been on the morning of her A-level results, the teenager finding out she had done enough to warrant her place at King’s moments before she took to the blocks. In her semi-final, she ran a personal best of 22.61 secs – putting her in the world’s top 20 for the season – only to tear her hamstring in the final.

There was the touching image of team-mates and fellow finalists Jodie Williams and Bianca Williams going back up the track to find the stricken Asher-Smith, to ponder with her the possibility of a missed medal to add to her 100m gold at the World Junior Championships.

The disappointment was shortlived: “I always knew it was a risk. I’d torn it in Oregon. I was asked, ‘do you want to do this?’ and I had the chance of not going. So I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. I was disappointed not to finish the race but I’d exceeded all expectations in 2014.

“If someone had told me at the beginning of the year I’d be a world junior champion, I’d say ‘don’t be so silly’. And Zurich was going to be my last race anyway and my training wasn’t going to start for another eight weeks, which was the exact time the hamstring needed to recover. Thankfully, there’s not been any more problems.”

Any suggestion that she might struggle with her follow-up season in the sport have already been dispelled by current indoor form.

The questions are now over her involvement in the European Under-23s in Tallinn and the World Championships in Beijing, and whether the focus will be on the 100m or the 200m or whether she can double up.

Right now she is not entirely sure: “I wouldn’t like to be the selectors as there’s a lot of good sprinters to pick from in both. But I don’t know what I’ll do. If I want to double up [in the 100m and 200m], I don’t see it as a problem except for the simple fact of the competition from all the other girls.”

It is the rivalry with her fellow Britons that pushes her on in training: the thought of how, say, Jodie Williams or Asha Philip might be pushing themselves. Asher-Smith has relished her winter block of training and the “stressful” balancing act of track life and her studies, although she professes to “boring her training partners to death with the history stuff”.

Of the studies, she adds: “I really like it, I find it very interesting. I’m not a big fan of medieval history – it’s a bit far back for me – but I love the crusades, historical theory, gender history, all of that.”

But that dual life means missing out on the everyday life as a student. While Saturday for Asher-Smith was spent racing at the British Indoor Championships in Sheffield, her friends were on a long-planned night out at Faces Nightclub in Essex.

“I appreciate I’m really embracing the student life in that sense although I did do freshers’ week,” she says. “But I’m very fortunate my friends have a complete understanding of what I’m trying to do. I really don’t feel like I’m missing out, it’s just different, no better or worse. I just have different aims although sometimes I’d like to let my hair down.”

She also makes the point that she is not unique, with fellow students at King’s and elsewhere doubling up with a student-sport life.

For her, it is made easier by one singular goal first talked about as a young girl: simply to make it to the Olympics. “Of course everyone wants to be Olympic champion but firstly I just want to be an Olympian. How cool would that be?”

The aspiration is predictably modest, the reality, however, is likely to be infinitely better.

The Sainsbury’s Indoor Grand Prix will be shown live on BBC One  from 1pm next Saturday.