Many Olympians have spent the past month and a half since the Tokyo Summer Games resting and vacationing, hanging out with friends and family, and making appearances.
Canadian track star Andre De Grasse is just getting around to that now.
After winning gold in the 200-metre event in Tokyo, and bronze in the 100 metres and 4x100-metre relay to become Canada’s most-decorated male Olympian, De Grasse had only a brief reunion with his partner and kids at his home in Jacksonville, Fla. Then the sprinter hit the road again and finished off his best season yet.
After the Olympics, the sprinter won the 100 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., in a wind-assisted 9.74 seconds. Then he had a rush of September podium finishes in Europe, including a pair of second-place results in the 100 and 200 at the Diamond League final in Zurich.
De Grasse made his way back to the Toronto area – where his mother Beverley still lives – and visited one of his alma maters this week.
News cameras surrounded the six-time Olympic medalist during a Thursday-morning event with students at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, where he had spent Grade 9 and Grade 10. His mother came along for the visit, as did a couple of his old high-school friends. As De Grasse wound down his media scrum, a student piped up, asking the sprinter what his favourite cafeteria foods were back in his days at McGivney.
The 26-year-old got a kick out of the question.
“I definitely liked the poutine here,” De Grasse told them, with a laugh. “And I always had to have a chocolate chip cookie every day. Do they still have those here?”
“YES”, roared a chorus of teenagers, still hanging around in the hopes of posing for selfies with the Olympian.
De Grasse, decked in blue jeans and baseball cap, was at the school to present a $25,000 cheque to Kids Help Phone from his Andre De Grasse Family Foundation. That money was raised through his Race With Me! Virtual Challenge, in which 3,000 kids across Canada ran outside weekly for eight weeks last spring. It was a ray of light for many living through cancelled sports and virtual school during the pandemic. Participants uploaded their videos and race times.
It was an idea presented to De Grasse by 15-year-old Montrealer Jesse Briscoe and his father Rob nearly a year ago. Total strangers at the time, they had reached out to his agent on a whim to ask if De Grasse would volunteer his celebrity power to their idea for a virtual running challenge, and help bring it to life online.
The Briscoes travelled from Montreal this week to stand alongside De Grasse inside the large domed sports facility next to the school and award the jumbo cheque. Fittingly, the McGivney students had also participated in the challenge. When accepting the funds, Katherine Hay, president and CEO of Kids Help Phone, said it would be well put to use – contacts with youth through their confidential health service increased by more than 140 per cent from 2020 to 2021 as kids grappled with the impact of the pandemic.
On this day, to welcome back De Grasse, the school had a rally-like vibe, complete with balloons and the school mascot – a wizard. A steady stream of people spoke to congratulate him, including Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti, who said De Grasse’s performances in Tokyo had “everyone glued to our TV sets.”
The Olympians competed before empty seats in Tokyo, under heavy pandemic restrictions. Fans were banned, no family could attend and only media dotted the stands. De Grasse had seen the reaction from Canadians on social media, but he’s just now seeing it for himself.
“I can’t believe so many people were tuning in to watch. At times, I wondered ‘are people watching it, because it’s like 6 in the morning [in Canada] and I’m racing at night?’ ” De Grasse said on Thursday, in an interview behind a mask, after the students began dispersing back to class. “It’s great to come home and hear people say they’re so proud of me and ‘good job’ and ‘congrats’. People will see me on the street or recognize me. It’s a great feeling to come home to that.”
He won three medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio as a 21-year-old. In Tokyo, seizing gold felt completely different.
“Yeah, it’s gold, you’re No. 1, the best in the world. I mean, it’s a different title right? You’re a champion,” he said. “Of course, I was happy and grateful that I had bronze and silver at my first Olympics, but I always wanted more, and the people around me always said I was better than that. So I just wanted to prove it to them and to myself that I could get it done.”
While chatting, De Grasse looked at ease in a room full of people all glancing his way, each awaiting their chance at some of his attention, even as his departure for an afternoon event in his calendar was nearing.
He has evolved from the fast young kid with a boyish smile racing against Usain Bolt in 2016. In Tokyo, after overcoming injuries and doubts during five in-between years, he had grown. This summer, he fortified his reputation as a competitor who runs down medals every time.
Across television and social media, his brand has steadily grown with him, and he appears in ads for a robust list of sponsors from Go Daddy, to Puma and Sobeys, RW&Co. to Peloton and Gatorade.
The pressure of all that expectation has an impact on athletes in different ways. De Grasse seems to relish it.
“I enjoy it. It’s pretty cool,” De Grasse said. “It’s awesome for people to think of me that way. I just enjoy the moment and try to be myself.”
He’s not shy to vocalize what he expects next for himself.
“It’s good that I won the 200 metres, but I want to win 100-metre gold as well, and also to break the national record, so I can be the fastest Canadian ever,” De Grasse said. “I don’t like to call it arrogance or cockiness, that’s just me being confident and, the people in my corner, like they believe in me. I believe in myself, but they believe in me so much more.”
De Grasse seems always to be surging from behind in races and wants to improve his starts.
“The people in my corner, they’re like ‘man, if you just get your start together, just do it a little bit better and that’s the difference right?’ ” he said. “There’s so much more room for improvement. I don’t feel like I’ve reached my peak yet.”
First things first – he’s going to finally squeeze in a vacation in the coming weeks.
Then he’ll return to training in Florida. He adds that his partner Nia Ali – reigning world champion in the 100-metre hurdles who competes for the United States – will also resume training next month, having given birth to their son in the spring. De Grasse said he will focus on the World Athletics championships in 2022 and 2023, using those to prepare for the 2024 Paris Games.
“Paris could be my last Olympics, or maybe not. Who knows?” De Grasse said. “I’ll be 29 so I feel like I still got some legs in me. So it’ll be fun, right?”