Grasroots to Glory - Asha Philip
Being a member of Asha Philip’s clan feels a bit like playing a lifelong game of Sardines, also known as reverse hide-and-seek. Where one member goes, another is sure to follow, then another, then another, until each event – near or far, big, or small – feels like a family reunion. No doubt every athlete will miss having their people in the stands during the Tokyo Games, but the absence of Philip’s beloved mum and aunties will feel primal to the sprinter, like the itch and ache of a phantom limb.
“I look at other families and I don’t understand why they’re not like mine,” said Philip.
“It doesn’t sit well with me because even if my cousins’ partners say ‘we’ve got this on’ we’re there, you don’t have to ask us twice. We’ll make time to make sure we’re available and I don’t know any other way of how I could live my life, being so supportive. I’ve been brought up on love and support. They’ve seen the struggle; I’ll go and speak to them if I’m finding something hard in training or I’m struggling mentally or physically. They are my number one fans, and the fact they’re all joined at the hip is even better. They talk to each other every day.”
Philip, 30, was technically raised by mum Sharon Philip, 62, but ‘aunties’ Alric McCabe, 68, and Fay Downie, 61, were all part of the maternal package.
“Asha is my baby, and she behaves like the baby,” joked Sharon. “You wouldn’t believe so, but there you go.”
It was Sharon, a trampoline coach, who introduced her daughter to her athletic pursuit of choice, but every get-together throughout Philip’s childhood was like a mini multi-sport event where family homes turned into Olympic villages.
“[My aunts] all love netball so that’s how that one started,” explained Philip.
“It was just one after another. Athletics was right at the end, a random event that we did. I don’t know what they saw but they just love sport and they wanted us all to love sport. There was always six or nine of us that played together and they let us get on with it. It worked. My brother [Rhys] came in third in the world at trampolining, my cousins [Sasha and Kadeen Corbin] played netball for England, my mum still plays netball and she is an umpire. We spend weekends together, afternoons, bank holidays. My family are spontaneous, lovable and over the top with their supportiveness. My nephew plays football on the weekends and he has about ten of us on the side-lines watching just one kid. He will message our family group chat asking us to come every week.”
Philip’s early years were filled with more springing than sprinting, though she excelled at both, and became world double-mini trampoline champion in her mid-teens. In 2007, she became the first British woman to win a world 100m title when she crossed the finish line first at the World Youth Championships.
Then, in a split second, everything changed.
Fresh off her sprinting high, Philip travelled to Canada to represent GB at the Trampoline World Championships in October 2007. What happened next is readily available to view on YouTube. It is a brutal watch.
It all begins routinely, with Philip sprinting to the board before launching herself off the trampoline, twisting elegantly in the air. But gravity takes hold and the 17-year-old lands on the mat below with a brutal crunch. She screams—piercingly, agonizingly—as she rolls on her back, writhing on the corn-coloured mat while clutching her right leg in anguish.
“Stay still,” warns the first member of staff to reach Philip, who is still wailing and gasping as more help arrives. The team roll Philip onto her side, and she desperately grasps at the mat below, like someone might if they believe they are about to fall off the face of the earth. The hand soon transforms into a fist, trying vainly to punch the pain away. It is futile. The freak accident, in medical vernacular, was a severe injury to her cruciate ligament. In human terms, it was nearly career-ending.
“It was probably one of the worst times of my life,” she recalled. “It was extremely hard and I think that’s when I realised my family are ride or die. They supported me throughout all of that and even then, my mum was still willing to support me financially. “
Recovery took three years. Gone was Philip’s dream of representing Great Britain at the 2008 Olympic Games, and, after deciding to focus on athletics, she was crushed when yet another injury—this time a hamstring issue—kept her out of contention for a spot on the London 2012 squad.
At long last, seven years after that devastating day in Quebec, things began to turn around. Philip won world 4x200m silver with GB at the 2014 World Relays in the Bahamas and European gold in the 4x100m. That same summer, Philip joined Bianca Williams, Jodie Williams, and Ashleigh Nelson to represent England at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, winning bronze.
Then, in 2016, Philip finally got her chance at an Olympics. As usual, the clan seized upon the opportunity to support one of their own. Sharon, Alric and Fay stopped off at different countries en route to Brazil, said Philip, “taking pictures at each place like I was there with them.
“Which is very weird, as they’re living their best life being tourists when I’m competing for my country.”
But once they arrived in Rio, all their attention was on Asha.
“It’s looking out for the individual Asha to make her come together,” said Fay of each woman’s contribution. “I feel that what I bring to the table is that steady head, that ‘come on, let us do this.’ [Alric] organises and makes sure that her diet is balanced, that she goes to bed on time, that sort of thing. I think we’ve realised from quite early on what the different aspects of an athlete, an elite athlete, requires. And we just kind of fell into the roles.”
Thanks to National Lottery players, the fortunes of Team GB have transformed over the past two decades, helping Britain become one of the best sporting nations in the world. Philip is one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing her to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
Philip, Desiree Henry, Dina Asher-Smith and Daryll Neita set a national record of 41.77s in the 4x100m in Rio, enough to secure them Olympic bronze. “I remember crossing the line, it didn’t even dawn on me that we’d got a medal. Desiree was just crying and I didn’t know why!” Philip fondly recalled. “When it came out in the press it was different, and honestly we’ll forever have that bond and talk about that moment for years to come. We’ve worked hard and we know what we’re capable of. That gold [medal] is looking very shiny right now.”
Philip has two chances at a gold medal this summer, both in the individual 100m and the relay. She believes she is in the best shape of her life, better than she would have felt had the Games not been postponed. When Philip stands on the start line in Tokyo and looks at the empty seats around her, she will have to imagine the three smiling faces that, under any other circumstance, would be there, beaming back at her. Sharon, to Philip’s occasional annoyance, always demands a post-race hug, so she obliges. Suddenly the sprinter would do anything for the chance to walk into her mum’s open arms.
“I don’t really show it much at all, how much I care and love them,” Philip reflected. “When we hang up on the phone they’ll say, ‘we love you Asha’ and I’ll say, ‘I know!’”
She need not worry. Philip’s three ride-or-dies will still be watching. If she wins, they will be there to shout her name from the rooftops. If she does not, six hands will reach down to pick her up, just like every single time before.
After all, as Sharon puts it, “We all do our part. She is mine, but she is not necessarily mine. “She’s ours and that’s the way it’s always been.”