The sounds of Andre De Grasse’s everyday life can be heard through the phone as he calmly discusses the extreme highs and lows of his pandemic experience thus far.
The 27-year-old Canadian reached the summit of the sprinting world last year when he won three medals at the Tokyo Olympics, including a long-awaited and highly coveted gold.
He’s navigating more than a dozen sponsorships at a time, managing a charitable foundation, and contemplating writing a book.
He’s had to work through some biomechanical glitches in order to stay in top running shape, and now faces an uncertain coaching situation as his coach, Rana Reider, is being investigated by the United States Center for SafeSport for alleged sexual misconduct.
All that, while he also manages being a parent of three kids and partner to an equally talented and ambitious athlete, the reigning world champion 100-metre hurdler, Nia Ali.
One of his children is laughing and singing as she runs around her dad’s legs. In both grand and small moments, De Grasse unconsciously displays his greatest talent – an unwavering serenity. Even during the biggest nine-and-change seconds in sport – the Olympic 100-m final – if you watch carefully it appears as though pressure and stress have an inverse effect on De Grasse. Before the gun goes, he appears relaxed.
De Grasse acknowledges that he doesn’t carry himself with the magnetic egoism of a champion sprinter, and doesn’t think about being a six-time Olympic medallist and the fastest 200-m runner in Canadian history as he prepares for this summer’s world athletics championships. He’s just a guy pacing around his kitchen, dealing with energetic kids while talking about what’s kept him busy during the pandemic. And he’s been busy.
De Grasse says that, like pretty much everyone else in the world, he’s spent most of the past 22 months working from home, and has used the time figuring out how to be an even better athlete while facing so much uncertainty. He’s also thinking about the future – aggressively taking command of career opportunities as the world’s top track athlete, but also exploring what might come next after the 2024 Paris Olympics, which he suspects may be his last.
“I think about writing a book pretty much every day now,” he says, hinting that it might unpack how he keeps so composed under pressure. “We’re also putting the finishing touches on a new clothing line I helped design. I’m really proud of it.”
De Grasse says that he also took the time to focus on “all the little things” he glossed over as a younger athlete, including the reason for a persistent hamstring injury that nearly prematurely wrecked his career back in 2017.
“I’m now sort of a middle-aged sprinter, so to speak, I’m at the peak of my career, and I realize I’m lucky because a lot of guys don’t get more than one Olympics. So I have to focus on the details,” he says. He credits his work with Vancouver-based sports data company Plantiga for spotting microscopic imbalances during various phases of his stride that were putting stress on his hamstrings.
“Using these sorts of technologies and seeing the data right in front of me has changed my approach and probably saved my career.”
When the Games were postponed in the spring of 2020, De Grasse decided he would only focus on what he could control.
“We took a short break, then we started to try to figure out how to make things work during the restrictions,” he says. He and his partner went back to the basics of training in Jacksonville, Fla., where the family lives.
“We built a gym in our garage,” he says, laughing. He then took to the streets around his neighbourhood to run, which he said reinvigorated him, reminding him of when he discovered the joy of track in Grade 12.
In that time, he’s been careful not to squander any opportunity. He’s appeared in commercials and on billboards and has leveraged his social-media accounts.
“We don’t get the big team contract you see in the NBA or NHL, so I’ve got to work really hard while I’m still competing,” he says of his deals with the likes of Gatorade, along with doing online mattress ads. But he’s also turned to socially conscious efforts by hosting a virtual run initiative in support of Canadian charity Kids Help Phone, as well as a partnership with the suit company Indochino in order to empower young Black men just starting out in their careers.
Eventually, his training group found a local field where it was permitted to work out. He trained carefully and raced sparingly that year, knowing that the biggest opportunity of his life awaited in 2021 in Tokyo.
With Usain Bolt retired, De Grasse became the de facto next one going into Tokyo. His sponsor, Puma, shifted its focus from Bolt to the Canadian, and he became the company’s marquee athlete, even helping design his own shoe. “One of my goals is to get more involved with what I’m doing outside of competition. I’m trying to be more entrepreneurial,” he says. “The shoe actually sold out, which I’m really proud of.”
De Grasse acknowledges that he and his peers face a great deal of pressure in filling the void left by Bolt, but he is unwavering in how he approaches performing.
“I’ve watched old track videos on YouTube with guys trash talking, being larger than life,” he says. “We do go after what the people want. We’re aware that this is a show, and it’s important to put on a good one. But I just try to be myself, and let myself do whatever I feel in the moment.
“So, whatever you see me doing in the moment, whether it’s in the blocks or after I cross the finish line, that’s just what comes out. It’s always just me.”
On top of filling Bolt’s spikes, De Grasse knew that he and his fellow sprinters would be faced with perhaps the single most challenging task in Olympic history in Tokyo: Making the marquee events of the Games dramatic and compelling even though the Japan National Stadium’s 68,000 seats were empty.
“I talked with my family and friends a lot about that before I went over,” he says, and he even began practising visualizing what it might be like as he trained. He decided before he left for Japan that he would listen to music in warmups and before setting in for each race, in order to fill the eerie silence and echo in the stadium.
“As I got into the box for my first race of the Games, I pushed the empty stands out of my mind, and I just thought about all the people watching on TV, and told myself, ‘You still got to put on a show.’ Then it suddenly started to feel like the Olympics.”
After the Games, De Grasse continued to race, and has continued to train throughout the winter. But now he’s facing perhaps the biggest challenge of his career as he enters a crucial final two legacy-defining years: an uncertain coaching situation.
Reider, a renowned American sprinting coach, began working with De Grasse in 2018, just as the Canadian was struggling with the persistent hamstring injury that threatened to send his career into a tailspin. De Grasse moved his family to Florida in order to work with Reider, and Ali joined the group as well. Reider is credited with helping resurrect De Grasse’s career, elevating him to a new level and last year’s Olympic gold medal.
Reider is currently being investigated for alleged sexual misconduct, an accusation the coach denies. De Grasse says he’s still training with Reider and is not going to make a decision on his coaching until there is a resolution.
He says he’s never witnessed any form of misconduct and is unaware of the details of the accusations
”I’m trying to navigate what I’m going to do and if I need to make a coaching change. I mean, I’m not sure yet. We’re still waiting on more information,” De Grasse says.
De Grasse says he’ll focus on a few races in the lead-up to this summer’s world championships in Eugene, Ore., which is also close to Nike’s world headquarters. “As a Puma guy, I’m excited to go there and win for my team,” he laughs, pointing out that one of his lifelong dreams is to win a world title.
In the meantime, De Grasse is excited for the Winter Games athletes headed to Beijing at the beginning of February. When asked what advice he would pass along to someone competing, he says that the most magical part of the Olympic experience wasn’t stripped out of a “COVID Games” for him.
“Besides competing – and when the gun goes off it feels like the Olympics – I was still able to be a part of a team and spend time with other athletes, and that’s maybe the best part of going to the Games. That’s what you remember.”