This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website.
The Markham native had visions of becoming a basketball star when he was talked into running track by a friend. Now the buzz is he could be the next big thing in Canadian athletics.
Andre De Grasse planned to focus on his own race, but when he burst from the blocks in the 100-metre final during last Sunday’s Pac-12 Track and Field Championships he couldn’t help glancing one lane over.
He’d told himself if he were even with University of Southern California teammate BeeJay Lee at 30 metres, he’d have a great race. But when he passed the landmark and peeked at Lee, he has already pulling ahead.
Then the Markham native hit another gear, and blazed to the conference title and capped a weekend that made Canadian sprint history.
De Grasse’s time — 9.97 seconds — set a Pac-12 record, improved his personal best and marked the first sub 10-second clocking for a Canadian since 2000. The previous day, the 20-year-old cruised to a 20.03 finish in a 200-metre heat, breaking his own Canadian record.
Eight weeks ahead of the Pan Am Games, De Grasse announced himself as a once-in-a-generation talent and legitimate medal contender in the games’ glamour event.
“The sub-10, I’ve been working on that all year,” says De Grasse, a graduate of Milliken Mills High School. “Everyone says the 200 is my best event, but I just wanted to prove I can run the 100 as well.”
De Grasse headed into this weekend with the seventh-best 100-metre time in the world, while his 200-metre time ranked second worldwide. Later in the season, stars such as Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay figure to eclipse De Grasse’s early marks, but Athletics Canada head coach Peter Eriksson remains intrigued with De Grasse’s potential.
Eriksson says De Grasse and recent USC grad Aaron Brown can help Canada achieve sprint success unseen since the 1990s, when Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin won three world and Olympic medals in the 100 metres and four more in the 4x100-metre relay.
De Grasse’s raw speed makes a relay team that claimed bronze at the 2013 World Championships a threat to medal again.
“The relay team will take a different turn with him on the team, and now we’re looking at, can we do better than the 1996 guys,” says Eriksson, referring to the Bailey-led group that won Olympic gold.
De Grasse is nearly assured a spot on the Pan Am team. Athletes have until June 14 to submit qualifying marks, with the top two Canadian performers in each event earning berths, provided they meet Athletics Canada’s performance standards. It is unlikely two sprinters will eclipse De Grasse’s early-season times.
If De Grasse medals at the national championships in July he’ll also qualify for the World Championships in Beijing this August.
When he envisioned athletic success as a high-schooler, De Grasse saw himself as a basketball star. By his final year at Milliken Mills, however, the team folded. Less than two months ahead of graduation, he had nearly abandoned the idea of an athletic scholarship until a friend talked him into running track.
His first race has already become Canadian track and field legend:
De Grasse wandering to the start line in a baggy basketball uniform and borrowed spikes.
De Grasse eschewing starting blocks and lining up facing the track’s infield, like a baserunner taking a leadoff.
De Grasse quickly reeling in the field, winning the heat in 10.9 seconds and catching the attention of Olympian Tony Sharpe, who runs the Speed Academy Athletics Club in Durham region.
Sharpe guided De Grasse through the summer and entered him in a high-school all-star race at a National Track League event in at a sold-out Varsity Stadium. He left the blocks last but crossed the finish line first, hitting his now-familiar mid-race surge toclock 10.59 seconds into a headwind.
That race, on a big stage against tough competition, prompted Sharpe to ponder the depth of De Grasse’s talent.
“I’d never seen anything like this — guys knocking off half a second in six weeks,” said Sharpe, who won a bronze medal in the 4x100-metre relay at the 1984 Summer Olympics. “I knew this kid was a phenom.”
After two years at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, De Grasse transferred to USC, where he majors in sociology, and where he has set or tied three school records.
His success has also helped fuel the nature-versus-nurture debate regarding elite sprinting.
Any athlete who becomes world class so quickly is clearly an outlier — imagine facing Miguel Cabrera just three years after throwing your first pitch. But De Grasse’s coaches say his speed is both inborn attribute and hard-won skill.
“There are no shortcuts,” Sharpe says. “The hard worker will always be successful. Not everybody has the mental capacity for track and field at a high level. It takes a different mindset.”
Harnessing that talent is a long-term project for USC head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert, who will oversee De Grasse’s training through the 2016 Summer Olympics.
She says keeping him fresh for the Pan Am Games and World Championships often means holding him out of NCAA meets. And prepping him for Rio means a relatively light workload — about 70 per cent of the volume of most elite sprinters handle — before building him up gradually.
“Imagine what he can do when he’s totally strong,” Smith Gilbert says. “I don’t like to give numbers, but he’s going to be one of the best of all time.”
At least, De Grasse doesn’t feel it.
Sharpe says De Grasse doesn’t wilt in high-stress situations mainly because he’s so new to the sport he’s too naïve to know he should be nervous.
And De Grasse says his late start means that when rivals plateau, he’ll still be working toward his peak.
“I’m still learning the sport,” he says. “For me to go that fast, I know I have the potential to do something great. There’s no limits on my body.”