With his shot at Olympic glory in Tokyo postponed until next summer, Andre De Grasse is spending his days chasing around two small children, doing puzzles with them, riding bikes or swimming in the backyard pool at his home in Jacksonville, Fla.
The 25-year-old sprinter from Markham, Ont., was deep into his Olympic training in Florida when COVID-19 shut down regular life around the globe. Canadians were eagerly awaiting his races in Tokyo. De Grasse earned three medals at the 2016 Rio Games – bronze in both the 100 metres and the 4×100-metre relay, and a silver in the 200, where he finished just behind the retiring Usain Bolt.
He says his running these days is limited to jogs around the neighbourhood, mostly to his mailbox and back. His coach sends him circuits he can do at home – full of pull-ups, burpees, pushups, sit-ups, and other core work, yoga and stretching. It’s a challenge for him and his girlfriend – American hurdler Nia Ali – to find workout time while caring for the kids. Their daughter Yuri is nearly 2, and Ali also has a son, Titus, almost 5.
“It has definitely brought me closer to the kids,” De Grasse said in a phone interview. “I would usually only get a few hours with them on a normal day.”
Canadians will see De Grasse on Cheerios boxes soon, despite the postponement of the Olympics to next July. But the Cheerios Olympic campaign – which includes four other Canadian Summer Olympians – has undergone a creative makeover. It now shares the spotlight with workers who are responding to unprecedented demand at Canada’s food banks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The cereal boxes had long been in production and headed for store shelves – different ones featuring De Grasse, Penny Oleksiak (swimming), Rosie MacLennan (gymnastics), Matt Berger (skateboarding) and Jennifer Abel (diving). Yet in the social-media videos, each athlete will throw the spotlight to a front-line Canadian food-bank worker, each of whom will get their own digital cereal box and have their story told.
On his Instagram page, DeGrasse will spotlight Chantal Senecal, the executive director at Food Depot Alimentaire in Moncton. She runs the food-distribution centre there, which oversees 60 food banks across New Brunswick. Dealing with an increase in demand of up to 30 per cent at some food banks, Senecal responded with many changes – new partnerships with local fisheries and farmers, strict physical-distancing practises, and a new transportation system to get fast deliveries to food banks. The mother of two also has a 16-year-old daughter working at one of the food banks.
Cheerios will repurpose its planned Olympic broadcast ad time to focus on workers at Canadian food banks. It will also donate $500,000 to Food Banks Canada, along with $600,000 worth of food products from parent company General Mills.
“The support we’re getting has been a big relief, because we were very, very worried about the pressure and impact that this situation would have on food banks,” Senecal said.
“They’re the Canadian heroes right now," De Grasse said. "Most of them have a family at home too, and they’re out there working every day to feed people while the rest of us are at home as we try to flatten the curve.
“We want to give them credit and whatever help they need to do their jobs and get through this. It feels really good to be part of that.”
De Grasse was one of many Canadian celebrities who appeared by video from home in last week’s #StrongerTogether COVID-19 broadcast benefit. When the border between Canada and the United States closed last month, De Grasse said that’s when the severity of this pandemic really hit him. He quickly booked travel plans for his mother to return to Toronto from Trinidad.
He said he wondered, at first, when the Canadian Olympic Committee took a stand and said it would not send athletes to the Tokyo Olympics. Friends from other countries were wondering aloud to him if Canada had made the right call. The IOC postponed the Games quickly thereafter.
“At first, I wasn’t sure if it was the right decision and I was a little nervous," De Grasse said. “As time went on and I started researching it more, I thought it was a good decision. Even though I think it was a really bold move, it was the right decision. It put a lot of pressure on the IOC to make a decision and we ended up winning that battle.”
He misses hangouts with friends, off-days at the movies and going to the beach. He misses the track, sports on TV, and being around fellow athletes. De Grasse says the days still go by fast. He takes pleasures in seeing the kids learn to ride a bike or conquer a card game.
“I think a lot of us will train harder, work harder and realize we don’t get this forever and that something we love can be taken away from us like this,” De Grasse said. “Definitely I think a lot of people will stop taking those little things for granted.”