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Andre De Grasse ran his first 100-metre sprint in borrowed shoes and gym shorts. He took a standing start, because he didn't know how to get into the blocks. That was in 2012.

Two months back, no one outside the small clique of Canadian track and field had heard of him. A pair of runs at June's U.S. collegiate championships – golds won less than an hour apart – pushed him just inside the periphery of the national consciousness.

Four weeks ago, it seemed as if the domestic success of Toronto's Pan Am Games depended entirely on him. Mr. De Grasse did what great performers do – he repeated under pressure.

By this morning, the former basketball hopeful, who took up sprinting on a lark, may be the most observed and expectant athlete in the country. Few rises are actually meteoric. This one is shaping up as Halley's Comet. Most of us won't see its like again.

Mr. De Grasse won a battling bronze at the IAAF world championship in Beijing on Sunday night.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt won in 9.79 seconds followed by American Justin Gatlin in 9.80. Mr. De Grasse's time was a career-best 9.92 seconds and a rare tie, with American Trayvon Bromell. The 20-year-old Canadian bent his body to nearly 90 degrees at the finish, chinning out a result.

Whatever legend Mr. De Grasse builds from now on will include that small, desperate gesture. It's propelled him onto the world stage.

From here on in, Mr. De Grasse is no longer a comer. He's arrived. He is still growing into his body and learning the basics of his craft, but he's already poised to take a place as the fastest man on Earth. The question has gone from an "if" to a "when." Maybe it'll be Rio, or Tokyo, or even Toronto.

In 2024, Mr. De Grasse will be the same age Donovan Bailey was when he won his first Olympic gold.

It may be a journey of years, which is what makes this morning so portentous and thrilling.

It's a debatable point, but there are three seminal sporting moments in the past quarter-century or so of Canadian sport: the night Ben Johnson won in Seoul; the moment you heard he'd been disqualified three days later; and Mr. Bailey redeeming us in Atlanta.

We don't follow track on a regular basis. For the most part, we don't notice any of these people until halfway through a Summer Games. Once we do, it's an hour-long romance.

But if you're a certain age, I'll bet very few of your memories are as crystalline as those three. They amount to less than 30 seconds total of a life. But that's one of the reasons sprinting has so much imaginative breadth – everything changes in an instant.

At one end of the track, you're great. By the time you get to the other, you're The Greatest. For some reason, and in the best possible sense, all the rest of us are implicated in that change.

I watched Mr. Johnson win in a lame Bloor Street wine bar. Why a wine bar? Because I'm not the most organized person. It was late at night. We were walking by, caught sight of the TV and had an "Oh crap, we're missing this" moment. We piled into the entrance, saw it happen and left. We were the first people out on the streets.

One minute, we were alone. The next, we were surrounded. It was like Dawn of the Dead in reverse.

I was at work when I heard it had all fallen apart – at a movie theatre in downtown Toronto. One of the ticket ladies had the habit of listening to the radio via earphones. She stood up suddenly during a rush and announced to the entire foyer: "Ben Johnson has just been disqualified from the Olympics."

Everyone went quiet, and then one person yelled, "No."

I watched Mr. Bailey win in the apartment of my then upstairs neighbour. There were eight of us. We'd all been sitting around for hours, drinking ourselves stuporous. There were three false starts. A frustrated friend got up and went to the bathroom. When he came running back in panic, pants flapping, we were all piled in a hooting scrum in the middle of the room.

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever done," he said miserably. And it was.

I can't remember much about last week. Occasionally, I forget my phone number. But I remember everything about those three turning points in Canadian history.

Twenty years on, we finally have the realistic hope of seeing another one. It takes a little getting used to.

Even the man in whose footsteps Mr. De Grasse follows was having trouble with that idea before the beginning of Sunday's race.

"All that matters is that he's proven he belongs," said Mr. Bailey, watching from a CBC studio. You could see where he was headed with this. Mr. Bailey had called the participants of Sunday's final "the greatest field ever." All the focus was on Mr. Bolt versus Mr. Gatlin. Mr. Bailey was preparing to give Mr. De Grasse a consoling, electronic hug.

Right after the race, there was a bit of confusion. We knew Mr. Bolt had won, but the rest of the results hadn't been posted. Mr. Bailey finally got a second look at the finish.

"Oh my goodness! Did he get third? Tied for bronze?!"

Even someone this expert is just waking up to what Mr. De Grasse is already capable of.

From the perspective of right now, he'll still be an underdog at Rio 2016. He's at least four or five years from his peak. But Mr. De Grasse has steadily proved that, in his world, a year is a very long time.

He will arrive in Brazil having gone from a cultish curiosity to a national obsession. He's a star now. He'll be a far brighter one by then.

The Olympic 100-metre final is scheduled to start late on Sunday, Aug. 14. If things go exactly right during those 10 seconds, Mr. De Grasse will end that evening as the biggest star anywhere, and you and I will end it with another unforgettable mnemonic signpost in our lives.