Andre De Grasse couldn’t be seen at first, as a dense crowd of giddy teenagers cocooned around the Canadian Olympic sprint medalist while he made his entrance into their track and field meet.
Teens in bright-coloured track jerseys scurried alongside him, cheered eagerly and steadied their phones in his direction. The thud of shot puts and the pitter-pattering of spikes on the track halted as the smiling 23-year-old sprinter made his way through the throng.
He was flanked by his mother, Beverley, his marketing agent, Brian Levine, and Tony Sharpe, the coach who had discovered his raw talent on that very track just six years earlier. It was there that the untrained 12th-grader in baggy basketball shorts ran a stunning 10.9 second 100-metre dash from a standing start, unsure how to use starting blocks like the other boys in the race.
The OFSAA Central Region Championships were taking place at the Toronto Track & Field Centre on York University’s campus on Thursday. It was a fitting backdrop for the announcement being made by the now-famous sprinter who grew up in nearby Markham, Ont.
In a makeshift news conference that popped up trackside among the kids, the star sprinter came into view, wearing black jeans, camo Puma sneakers and a T-shirt that read “Break Your Limits.” He announced his new Andre De Grasse Family Foundation, and its first initiatives, including a scholarship program for deserving, young promising talents as he once was – Ontario high schoolers who don’t yet belong to a track and field club. It will help chosen athletes with the costs and resources needed to reach their potential, including access to many of the experts who have helped De Grasse to success.
For De Grasse on Thursday, it was a whirlwind afternoon of autographs, photos and a steady stream of interviews with camera crews and notebook-wielding reporters who rarely see him inside this country. The intrigue surrounding the fastest Canadian sprinter of a generation has clearly not waned. Yet on the track, De Grasse is still trying to shed some rust after a lengthy injury recovery.
Two summers ago, the 5-foot-10, 155-pound Canadian sprinted to a silver and two bronze medals alongside the world’s fastest men at the Rio Olympics. After that, a promising 2017 season sprinkled with victories and fast race times was halted by a hamstring injury. It prevented him from a final world championship faceoff with the retiring Usain Bolt. Then it cost him precious training time, too.
“It was disappointing because I felt like that was my year to win,” said De Grasse, seated indoors for an interview, away from Thursday’s sweltering heat and the crowd. “I was extremely confident going into the world championships and felt like I could have won. Bolt didn’t win and [Justin] Gatlin did, and I’d beat Gatlin a couple of times. But it’s part of the sport, and all I can do with that now is use it as a motivational piece.”
After recovering for some nine months, De Grasse has laboured a little in three recent meets. At the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, he was fourth in the 100 metres in 10.15 seconds. Then, in Diamond League races, he ran the 200 in 20.46 in Doha, Qatar, sixth in that eight-man field; then eighth in 10.25 seconds in a rain-drenched 100-metre race in Shanghai, well back of British winner Reece Prescod, who clocked in at 10.04.
“I still had the speed, but you also need the fitness to hold that speed for 10 seconds or 20 seconds, and I didn’t have that in those races. I was just dying at 60 metres and I had nothing left in the final 40,” De Grasse said. “It’s been a slow start to the season for me, but I’m not panicking. I’m not worried. Now it’s about going back to the drawing board, trying to put it back together again and then go out there and try to win a race.”
Diamond League races continue, but he’s not there at the moment. De Grasse said he expects to head to Europe next, taking his time and racing when it feels right. His summer plans include running in the Harry Jerome Track Classic in Burnaby, B.C., in June and at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium in August for the North American, Central American and Caribbean Championships (NACAC) – billed as Track & Field in the 6ix.
“I just want to come out of the season healthy. It’s an off-year – I don’t have to worry about a world championships or an Olympics,” De Grasse said. “I can just worry about trying to get myself back to where I was.”
Off the track, his brand keeps growing. He played in the NBA All-Star Celebrity game this year, has a Gatorade commercial and continues to be one of Puma’s biggest brand endorsers. The foundation is his latest endeavour, a collaboration with the Athletics Canada Foundation.
Athletes chosen for the scholarship will be awarded all costs for club registration, meet entries, uniforms, equipment and travel. They’ll get coaching from Sharpe, strength training, nutritional counselling, chiropractic care and academic consultation.
A foundation’s second endeavour will be clinics put on by De Grasse and Sharpe.
“He’s brought some attention back to track and field in Canada,” Sharpe said. “When I ran back in the day, there was no Raptors, no Blue Jays in Toronto. Track got some attention and the participation rate was higher. Now kids are gravitating to what they see on TV – basketball, baseball – and in track, we’ve seen a decline in numbers. But Andre’s success I think has regenerated some interest again.”
As kids surrounded her son for photos at York on Thursday, Beverley De Grasse reflected back on Sharpe discovering him there in 2012. Her youngster had been more interested in basketball back then, despite her efforts to encourage him toward sprinting years earlier, the sport she’d starred in back in Trinidad and Tobago. Suddenly, his focus was shifting dramatically to track. He’d given his mom Sharpe’s number and repeatedly bugged her to call him. Once the busy mother finally did, Sharpe told her “I’ve never seen such raw talent.”
The costs of competing at high-level track were huge though. One expensive trip to Colombia still sticks in her mind.
“When Andre made his first Pan American Junior Games in Colombia, I couldn’t afford to pay to send him. His coach helped him find a sponsor to get there and that’s where it started for him,” his mother said. “I was doing the best I could under the circumstances. There was always someone to help when he needed it. Last year, Andre helped two kids who were going to miss out on a track meet in New York, because they couldn’t afford to go. Now, he wants to help other kids too.”
De Grasse’s fastest-ever time with a legal wind is the 9.91 he clocked while running to Olympic bronze in Rio. De Grasse already holds the Canadian 200-metre record, but still aims at the Canadian 100-metre record of 9.84, co-held by Donovan Bailey (1996) and Bruny Surin (99).
De Grasse said he figures he has two Olympic Games left in him. In the post-Bolt era, it’s time for a new champion.
“The door is open for sure. One person wins here, another wins there. It’s really an even battle and you don’t know right now who will win a given race,” De Grasse said. “I need to prepare hard now so I can be dominant. I’ve beat all these guys before, so now I’ve just got to be confident, put that mental aspect back in, and win.”