‘Humble’ coach will keep Asher-smith’s feet firmly on ground
Heights of Doha will feel like a dream when world champion resumes her training, says Ben Bloom
In a few weeks’ time, Dina Asher-smith will return to the same Norman Park track in south-east London with which she is so familiar for her first winter training session. The Blackheath and Bromley Harriers base offers little scope for glamour, irrespective of global titles or how high up in the betting someone might be for any end-of-year awards.
So, as ever, Asher-smith will go through her usual warm-up watched by hordes of children haring along the track within touching distance of their idol.
There will be smiles, pictures and hearty congratulations. And then it will be like the past week never happened. Business as usual for the new world 200metres champion and her long-time coach John Blackie in a world where everything is different, but nothing changes.
Theirs is a partnership that began when Asher-smith was nine years old and has endured ever since – through national age-group titles, world junior titles, European titles and now a first world title in Doha. Just one accolade awaits – that of Olympic gold – and both athlete and coach would dismiss any suggestion of basking in recent glories.
Norman Park has been Blackie’s stamping ground for decades, having focused on athletics coaching 20 years ago after seeing his daughters’ passion for the sport. It is a fitting place for a man who eschews publicity and deflects attention wherever possible.
In his eyes, this success is not about him. But when asked who she would dedicate her world title to, Asher-smith had no hesitation.
“My parents would be frustrated that I didn’t say them, but it definitely has to be my coach John,” she said.
“He’s always believed in me and been careful in my progression, holding me back so I could get stronger and cope with my speed when I needed. This medal is dedicated to his patience, intelligence and wisdom.”
While not unique, their relationship is unusual within a British Athletics set-up geared towards large, high-profile sprinting groups. Most of her sprinting peers are based at the governing body’s multimillion-pound facility in Loughborough or US bases.
Yet she has remained fiercely loyal to the man who first spotted her when she joined the Bees Academy he had helped establish to encourage primary schoolchildren into athletics, ignoring any external influence the likes of Nike would have exerted when she signed her first contract with the sportswear giant at the end of 2012.
When it became apparent that Asher-smith was too quick for the rest of the female sprinters in her training group, Blackie told her to chase down the men instead. Why look elsewhere? Nothing changes.
In The Daily Telegraph last month, Asher-smith wrote: “My coach John is like family to me. Lots of people wonder about him, as he is not the sort of person to seek out the limelight.
“He is happy within himself and finds joy in supporting others and helping them to fulfil their potential. He is a humble and kind person, and I love him to bits.”
The word “humble” popped up in the aftermath of Asher-smith’s gold medal-winning exploits in Doha. How does a person who has made history as the first British woman ever to win a global sprint title stay grounded?
“Being an athlete is very humbling anyway,” she said. “I train six days a week and I am still going to push myself to the limit. It’s very unglamorous when you have got lactic and you’re lying on the floor. Ultimately, you’re only ever as good as your last performance.
“If you ever lose sight of that, then that’s the last thing you’re ever going to do, so I have tried hard to stay grounded.
“Athletics is a very unpredictable, and at times unforgiving, sport. I could run the same time next year and finished fifth. So I have to keep my feet firmly on the ground and keep working hard.”
Next year will be tougher. Shaunae Miller-uibo, Shelly-ann Fraser-pryce, Marie-josee Ta Lou, Dafne Schippers, Elaine Thompson and Blessing Okagbare were all missing from the world 200m final and will expect to be on the start line at the 2020 Olympics. Ashersmith is well aware.
“We’ve still got some things to work on,” she said after her triumph. For that, she will return to familiar surroundings with the same coach and the same group, on the same old track she has always known. Everything is different, but nothing changes.
Dedication: Dina Asher-smith paid tribute to her coach John Blackie