Why Dina Asher-Smith believes it's the right time to speak openly about mental health

When Dina Asher-Smith takes her place on the starting blocks at the delayed Olympic Games this summer, she is determined to be in peak condition both physically and mentally. The British sprinter has had an extra year to prepare for one of the biggest occasions of her career and she doesn't want to leave any stone unturned.

During these unprecedented times, Asher-Smith has grown fond of the idea: "If not now, when?" There might never be another chance in her life where she will have the opportunity to learn more about herself, and the 25-year-old has adopted a renewed focus on mental health.

The fastest woman in British history is happy with life but has taken steps to pay more attention to her state of mind because she understands that things can easily take a turn for the worse with the COVID-19 pandemic still looming over the world.

Although she appreciates taking better care of herself can also lead to an improvement in performance on the track, Asher-Smith understands the power of speaking out and wants to help more people to open up on the issue.

"I would definitely encourage people to go and get the support they need for whatever reason," she tells ESPN. "And even if it's tiny, if you can afford it, go and get it or speak to somebody because it's a very interesting time right now and I don't think it's a time to be hiding or feeling that it's stigmatised when it could change your life."

Asher-Smith is one of the most recognised figures not just in the track and field scene, but in British sport as a whole. She made history at the 2019 World Championships in Doha to become the first British woman to win a major global sprint title in the 200 metres event, and began 2021's outdoor season with a notable win over 200m in Savona, Italy. However, she continues to take everything in her stride and remains humble amid her success.

"I don't feel added pressure," she says. "I get asked this a lot and I don't know if I'm naive or missing the elephant in the room but I'm OK. I don't feel anything too different from any of my competitors because we're all in a similar boat and I also don't think of pressure like that.

"I love the adrenaline rush and the reason why I love sprinting so much is that I describe it as being on the edge of a roller coaster. When they stop the roller coaster and you can see down and you get that feeling, some people will hate it and think that's why they don't go on roller coasters but for me, that's what it's like standing on the start line and I love that feeling."

This endearing side has helped Asher-Smith to capture the heart of the British public and opened the doors for her to show that she is much more than just an athlete. She has dipped her toe into the fashion industry, from gracing the catwalk during the Off-White show at Paris Fashion Week to starring in a Louis Vuitton campaign.

She boasts a history degree from King's College London, is an ambassador for Muller Corner yoghurt, has a regular column in a UK newspaper and always sports a big smile and laugh during her television appearances. However, sprinting remains her first love.

Asher-Smith has become one of Team Great Britain's key figures as she looks to follow in the footsteps of British legends Christine Ohuruogu and Jessica Ennis-Hill who both won Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012 respectively.

The world champion was building momentum at the perfect time ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games before the pandemic forced the competition to be postponed by another year. Asher-Smith is someone who attempts to live in the now but with the world at a standstill, it gave her time to reflect.

She had to start thinking long-term and with the athletics calendar amended due to the pandemic, she could end up competing at the Tokyo Olympics this year, defend her world title in Oregon and Budapest respectively in 2022 and 2023, before embarking on the Paris Olympics in 2024.

With a new congested schedule on the horizon, Asher-Smith opened up for the first time in her newspaper column last December and wrote about taking "psychological check-ins" and she hasn't looked back since.

"I think it's really important that people are public with that and that's why I wrote about it in my column," she says. "Normally, I don't think people talk about it too much but I thought I'm going to speak about this because I think this is a time in the world where if people, for whatever reason, want to get more mental health support they should absolutely go and do it."

The impact of COVID-19 has seen a rise in people suffering with their mental health and on May 5, the Office for National Statistics in the UK revealed the rates of depression have more than doubled since before the pandemic.

There has also been an increase in feelings of anxiety and loneliness during the national lockdowns but the same study showed fewer people than ever looked to seek help from their doctor. The death toll in the UK is another harrowing read with more than 128,000 people dying from COVID-19 as of May 10.

MORE: Highlighting experiences, voices in sport around mental health awareness

The statistics have also shown that members from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic background are more likely to be diagnosed with the virus in England. Feeling concerned about the pandemic and the safety of her loved ones, Asher-Smith thought it would be best to seek professional advice to make sure that she had the right tools to handle the uncertainty of the pandemic.

"I went and personally saw a psychologist because I was sitting at home and thinking this is a weird period isn't it. It's very traumatic and at one point, we were very scared and thought hopefully my parents, grandparents and family would be OK and that's a situation that not many people have got.

"Some people around the world will be in that situation more than others but fortunately for me in the UK, that's not something that I ever grappled with on such a real scale. I thought that whilst myself and my family are OK physically and mentally, I feel with mental health, sometimes you don't know that you're not OK until it's very late."

British Athletics has also felt the devastating effect of the pandemic as legendary coach Lloyd Cowan died in January at the age of 58 following complications with COVID-19. Cowan was a 110m and 400m hurdler before becoming a coach and memorably helped Ohuruogu to achieve Olympic glory.

Asher-Smith was among several athletes to pay tribute to Cowan at the time and his death further reiterated the traumatic impact of the virus. At the start of May, the athletics community united and Asher-Smith, Ohuruogu and Olympic legend Usain Bolt were among the stars to support a new grants scheme named after Cowan.

It has also been a testing time for athletes looking to reach the Olympics this year with continued speculation of further delays. On April 15, a Japanese official suggested that the Olympics still might not take place this summer and four days later, the country's central government announced a third state of emergency in Tokyo amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The lockdown was intended to end on May 11 but it has now been reported the government are looking to extend it even further which doesn't bode well for Asher-Smith, who is looking to claim the first Olympic gold of her career.

Asher-Smith's first taste of the Olympics came at London 2012 as a teenager, when she volunteered as a kit carrier and watched on from the track as "Super Saturday" unfolded -- a night that saw Mo Farah, Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford all win gold.

She competed in Rio four years later where she won bronze in the 4x100m relay and believes extra care on the psychological side can see her performance improve in Japan. "For me, I understood that in a year's time, I want to be in the best shape of my life, it's the Olympic Games! If not now, when? So, it's also my duty to myself as an athlete and my own performance to leave no stone unturned.

"So, whilst we were all going through a traumatic thing, I thought I'm definitely going to see somebody that I can talk to about all this stuff that's going on because not only is it strange and weirdly traumatic for all of us, part of my job is to be in the best holistic shape in a year's time and I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn't make sure that I was OK mentally as well.

"I have to admit it was down to a performance benefit for me because I thought while I feel fine, let's make sure I feel fine in a year's time because you never know what's around the corner."

Asher-Smith decided to switch off from Twitter to get away from the constant rumours as she is confident athletes will be the first to hear confirmation of a possible rescheduled Olympics. Although she has found it easy to ignore the outside noise, fellow athletes have struggled with the uncertainty and Asher-Smith has been their source of comfort and advice.

"Hearing that stuff, I've been OK but I know some of my athlete friends have been quite anxious because it's not just about the Olympics, it's about can I pay my mortgage? It's more than competing because for lots of us, it's our whole job and people will say that it won't happen.

"For some people it is stressful but my advice to my friends is that if our manager hasn't said anything and we didn't get an email from the British Olympic Association then it's not a thing.

"Please ignore it. These people are entitled to have these discussions [about postponement] but from our perspective and trying to keep ourselves happy and sane, unless it comes from a very verified source, please ignore it because it's too much stress."

Dedicating more time on her mental health is all part of a process to help Asher-Smith become a better athlete and person. This new approach could play a huge role in her chances of taking the Olympics by storm this summer and writing another chapter in British history. The eyes of the watching world will be on the British star in Tokyo but she simply seems to thrive in pressure situations rather than view them as a chance to fail.

"At the end of the day, sprinting is a high-pressure sport," she explains. "You've got 10 or 11 seconds to get it right and if it goes wrong, then try again in four years' time and that's our life.

"That's the environment that we've grown up in and that's the sport that we're in. That's just part of my job and that's part of the reason why I love it, again it's that idea of 'if not now, when.'

"I can always say that by the time that time comes, I would've turned over every stone to be in the best possible shape that I can. I would've worked hard, eaten right, slept right, done all the things that I possibly could've done to be in the best position at that point in time.

"So, when you think about it like that, it's not really pressure, it's part of what I love, it's what I do and at the end of the day, I can only do my best and I work very hard to know that I can put out my best performance when it really matters. It's part of the game."