Ashley Smith (right) shares the Napoli 2019 Summer Universiade steeplechase podium with Mounaime Sassioui of Morocco (centre, gold medalist) and silver medalist Rantso Mokopane of South Africa
For Napoli 2019 Summer Universiade medallist Ashley Smith, his favoured 3000m Steeplechase event is not just a running race, but a metaphor for life.
The talented athlete sought athletics as a positive distraction from a challenging upbringing in a crime-ridden neighbourhood in South Africa, pursuing his new-found love throughout his childhood and into his teenage years.
All his perseverance and dedication paid off following his selection into South Africa’s athletics squad for the 2019 FISU Summer Universiade in Napoli which culminated in the highlight of his young career so far: a third-place finish and bronze medal in the 3000m Steeplechase, where he joined silver-medallist and compatriot Rantso Mokopane on the podium in Napoli.
FISU caught up with the buzzing 22-year-old, who shares with us his passion for running, his unforgettable experiences at the Summer Universiade, and what the future holds.
In action at the water pit during the Napoli 2019 Summer Universiade steeplechase finals
FISU: Let’s start at the beginning … who is Ashley Smith, and how did you get into athletics?
Ashley Smith: I am a student-athlete at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa, doing a Bachelor of Arts degree where I am hoping to major in Political Science and History. I grew up in Mitchell’s Plain, a community filled with crime and poverty. However, I did not let that get me down. I persevered and continued to work hard to keep my dreams alive. With so much negativity and distractions, I had to remain focused, disciplined and true to myself.
I have been involved in athletics since I can remember – there are pictures of me when I was in crèche running on a track! I believe it is my calling, yet I’m only using it as a platform to open doors for myself and at a later stage, to give back.
Steeplechase is not a common event to be involved in … how did you specifically get into this aspect of athletics, and what do you enjoy the most about it?
As a primary school kid, I was always fascinated by hurdles, but unfortunately at the time I was not blessed with the speed. It was only when I reached the Under-17 age group that I was introduced to 2000m Steeplechase, and I found myself loving it ever since. However, after 2016, my previous coach and I decided I should take a break to try and get faster and stronger before returning to the Steeplechase. This being my first year back in the Steeplechase event since 2016, I couldn’t have asked for a better year of running. I won eight of my ten races in the local season, won my first race in Europe (the 1500m at the Motonet Games in Tempere, Finland) and finished 3rd at the World Student Games.
The thing steeplechase taught me is that everyone faces challenges or obstacles in life, but regardless of what stands in your way, you have to find a way to go passed, over or under it. But I love running in general, regardless of distance or code.
How do you balance your studies with your training?
I am a student before being an athlete, so I have to compromise and manage my time. However, it comes with a lot of sacrifice and discipline, because doing two sessions and attending class the whole day is not an easy thing, but I have to continue to remind myself that I have to get something behind my name for life after running.
Congratulations on your bronze medal in Napoli! How did you feel in the build up to the race, and how did you feel standing on the podium representing your country at an international event?
It didn’t come as a surprise … my coach Ruben Ramolefi and I have been working hard over the last nine months, and approached the season with the objective of winning the World Student Games – we knew my personal best was not a true reflection of what I was capable of. It was a bitter-sweet moment, because it was my first international Steeplechase competition that ended with a medal, but not the medal I wanted. However, this has motivated me more in preparation for the big year ahead.
Aside from the actual competition, what else did you enjoy about Italy and the Universiade experience as a whole?
The thing that stood out for me was not the medal, but that I could share that whole experience and achievement with people close to my heart: my fellow University of the Western Cape (UWC) athletes. We came a long way, so for six UWC athletes to be in the athletics team at the World Student Games was just great. It contributed to the greater cause: making UWC the best athletics university in South Africa in the years to come.
Many athletes don’t get to combine both their studies and sport at a high level … how important is to balance the two, in your opinion?
Like a said before, I’m a student before being an athlete, so I have to manage and compromise both academics and sport. I have to build myself holistically and not just focus on the one. I have to think about life after running.
What profession do you intend on pursuing after your athletics days are over?
Preferably something where I can give back to my community, Plan A being running. Plan B would be something in sport, most probably working at sporting federation or something in politics. Plan C: a history teacher, where I can help students be the better version of themselves on and off the field.
What would you say is the highlight of your career thus far?
I think this athletic year as a whole, where I was very consistent. I won eight out my ten local races, won my first European race in Finland and then obviously the bronze medal at the Summer Universiade.
Following your success at the Universiade, what is next for you, in terms of your mid-term goals and targets?
Next on the agenda would be contributing to my university team’s success at the local USSA XC Championships in September. I of course wish to remain injury free, have a consistent build up towards 2020, try have a better season next year and hopefully make my childhood dreams a reality and represent South Africa at the Tokyo Olympics 2020.