ina Asher-Smith doesn’t usually do false starts. You have to go back to 2011, 10 years and well over 250 races ago, to find her last one, in the 200m final of the European Youth Olympics in Turkey.
How strange it must feel, then, to be starting the biggest year of her career all over again.
12 months ago, fresh from becoming a world champion for the first time in Doha the previous October, the 25-year-old was preparing to embark on the road to Tokyo in a quest for Olympic glory that – if all went to plan – would see the leading lady of British athletics become the golden girl of British sport.
Of course, it didn’t happen. Instead of a full campaign building towards a humid night at the Japan National Stadium, Asher-Smith ‘raced’ just four times in 2020, each in low-key pseudo-workouts at her home track in Bromley, as a global pandemic decimated the athletics calendar.
But the mantra now is, in simplistic terms, the same as it was then: “Be fit and be fast”.
A year spent in the shadows may have helped in the first of those endeavours in particular as Asher-Smith eschewed major competition, neglecting to partake in a disconnected Diamond League series or at a British Championships that no longer had Olympic qualification at stake.
“I made it very clear in 2020 that I wasn’t just going to race for racing’s sake,” Asher-Smith explained in Athletics Weekly earlier this month. “Especially when one of the downsides of racing was that you could potentially catch a life-altering virus.
“We used the time to get stronger in areas that we wouldn’t normally have the time to work on.”
It the circumstances, no athlete’s individual decision to compete or not could be labelled right or wrong, but Asher-Smith’s was certainly a mature one. Riding the wave of that first global title, it would have been easy to opt to roll with the momentum and perhaps even use a championship-free season to go all-out in pursuit of fast times, in the mould of Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei, who broke the men’s 5,000m and 10,000m world records on the track.
But it seems the break has gone on long enough. For the first time since 2018, Asher-Smith is taking in an indoor campaign, starting at the World Indoor Tour meet in Karlsruhe, Germany on Friday, and ending, hopefully, at the European Indoor Championships in Poland in March, which would be her first major indoor championships since she claimed her first senior individual medal – a silver – at the same event six years ago.
Taking back the British record, which was improved upon by Asha Philip during her exodus from the indoor scene, is on the agenda, too.
Ultimately, anything Asher-Smith does over 60m will be little more than an hors d’oeuvres ahead of an outdoor season filled with unknowns, not only because no one really knows whether the Olympics will even go ahead second time around, but also due to how hard it is to interpret the form anyone did (or didn’t) show last season.
Jamaican legends Elaine Thompson-Herah and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce ran the two fastest times in the world over 100m, but, understandably, neither were as quick as they – or Asher-Smith – had been 12 months previously.
We should have had our first glimpse of collegiate sensation Sha’Carri Richardson (10.75 in 2019) on the global circuit, but the pandemic meant she did not race outside the US and could ‘only’ manage 10.95 as far as wind-legal times were concerned, though, helpfully, she went quicker on three occasions in overly-favourable conditions.
Shaunae Miller-Uibo was the fastest woman in the world over 200m, as she had been in 2019, when she opted to focus on the 400m at the World Championships as Asher-Smith won gold. But as with those leading the way in the shorter spring, her best mark of 21.98 was way below both her own and Asher-Smith’s top form.
It’s been almost 18 months since any of the leading protagonists ran outdoors in what you’d consider ‘normal’ circumstances, and it may be a good few more until they do again.
For those like Asher-Smith, who chose to take a back seat, the cobwebs may take quite some blowing away. Going indoors to get out early seems another shrewd plan.