Andre De Grasse at the 2015 Pan American Games (© Getty Images)
As if the world of men’s sprinting didn’t have an extraordinary cast of characters already, along comes Canada's 20-year-old Andre De Grasse.
Outstanding victories at the 2015 NCAA Championships in both the 100m and 200m made headlines on both sides of the border for the young man who has just completed his first year at the University of Southern California.
Super-quick, albeit wind-aided, times of 9.75 and 19.58 in Eugene just added to the excitement.
Soon after his picture adorned posters across Toronto as Canada’s largest city hosted the 2015 Pan American Games and with the guidance of his USC coach Caryl Smith Gilbert, who has carefully nurtured him – bearing in mind his youth – he won both sprint events in Toronto.
Anyone who might have suggested his 9.95 personal best was nothing to shout about would have been duly impressed by his 200m victory in Toronto.
Running a sublime Canadian Record of 19.88 – from lane eight no less – he marked his entry into the elite sprint ranks. Now he has set his sights on running both the 100m and the 4x100m at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 later this month.
New faces, new challenges
The prospect of facing Usain Bolt, Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell is an opportunity he relishes.
“I have never faced any of those guys. I have lined up against Usain Bolt in the 4x100 relay at the Commonwealth Games last year but that didn’t go very well,” he explained, reflecting on a botched baton pass by Canada.
“I didn't get the baton in time in the exchange zone so I don't really count that as an opportunity. So, this will be the first opportunity to race against these guys.
“I am really excited and looking forward to seeing how I match up against them and see how far I can get. I am really going to take it one race at a time I don't want to get too far ahead of myself or full of myself. And if I make it to the final hopefully just go out there and compete and do myself proud.”
Beijing will be his first global championship, having never represented Canada at the world youth or junior championships, but he denies having the slightest bit of nervousness.
“Oh no, no, (doesn't make me nervous). My coach has told me I am young and the pressure is not really on me. It’s on Usain Bolt, Justin Gatlin, those guys,” he said. “They have been doing it longer than me. She told me: ‘Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Take this as an experience to learn how to compete in front of 100,000 people.’
“And this is my first World Championships so it’s not for me to try to put expectations on myself. I know a lot of people have. They did that at the Pan Am Games but I think I handled it well and I am going to continue to do what I keep doing.”
After the successful year he’s had, he has been approached to turn professional and give up his scholarship, but he’s not taking the bait.
One day, he hopes to earn his master’s degree in sociology and work with children. No doubt his incredible personal renaissance plays a part in his wish to help others.
A former Canadian 200m record-holder, Tony Sharpe, deserves credit for launching De Grasse’ career after seeing him run a 100m race in basketball shorts for fun.
Sharpe says he has never seen such raw sprint talent. De Grasse, who for all his sudden success has retained humility, acknowledges his debt to his former coach.
“Before track, I was playing basketball,” De Grasse explains. “I played high school and Ontario Association club basketball. Before I met Tony Sharpe, basketball wasn't really going that well and I wasn't doing positive things, a lot of negative stuff, and then I met Tony Sharpe, and track and field gave me a second chance to do something different.
“I got my school paid for; I am fortunate to have my school paid for and now I am getting to travel the world so it's really a good feeling that track and field can do those kinds of things for you.”
De Grasse admits to running with a rough crowd, dabbling in recreational drugs and seemingly following a self-destructive path.
Within a year of training with Sharpe, though, he was running fast enough to earn a scholarship to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas where he racked up five national track titles in two years.
Not in Kansas any more
NCAA institutions then came calling but USC was his choice.
At 1.78m tall, the Canadian is small compared to those men he will line up against in Beijing, and he is also distinctive for an unusual arm carriage that sees his right arm awkwardly extend to the outside.
“Yes we are fixing that. I have an imbalance problem with my hips so I think that is why my arm does that,” he explained with a laugh. “Sometimes I have a knot in my right shoulder. I think it was from back in the day, a little injury from basketball.
“It’s not something that I want to continue doing, even though you are saying, ‘If it ain't broke don't fix it.’ But I think if I can fix it, it will help me a lot better with my drive phase and my acceleration, and I would be able to go a lot faster.”
Clearly De Grasse has enormous potential. And when he steps into the blocks against the world’s fastest men, it will be with a positive attitude and astonishing raw ability.
Perhaps that’s a combination that will metamorphose into a medal.
Paul Gains for the IAAF