Andre De Grasse laughs to himself as he ponders a question about how he has changed since winning three medals in Rio de Janeiro at his debut Olympics in 2016.
“Well, I’ve grown facial hair since then,” says the Canadian sprinter with a chuckle. “I’m not a young, skinny kid any more.”
The 26-year-old from Markham, Ont., is five years removed from that whirlwind Olympic Games, where he became the first Canadian sprinter to win three medals at a single Olympics. He raced to bronze medals in the 100 metres and the 4×100-metre relay, plus a silver in the 200, behind Usain Bolt. The playful on-track interactions between the Jamaican sprint sensation and the rising then-21-year-old Canadian were television magic, sparking talk that this might be Bolt’s heir apparent.
Jamaica’s eight-time Olympic gold medalist – which included wins in the 100- and 200-metre events at three consecutive Games – threw his arm around the precocious Canadian who was just getting started, a fellow star on Puma’s roster of athletes.
Bolt has since retired, and the opportunity to be fastest man at the Olympics is wide open at the Tokyo Games, slated to start on July 23. De Grasse isn’t shy in talking about his goals.
“I want to bring back a gold for Canada, whether it’s in the 100 or 200. I train for both and I think I have a great shot in both events,” De Grasse said in a recent phone interview.
In Rio, he set a Canadian record for the 200 metres with a time of 19.80 seconds. Now he wants another for the national record books. “I want to try to get that 100-metre record as well,” De Grasse adds.
When De Grasse competed in Rio, he was barely four years into an athletics career that had begun late in high school, when the basketball-loving kid tried sprinting on a whim and exhibited a rare talent.
So much has changed for De Grasse since the 2016 Games. Despite already going pro, he returned to the University of Southern California to finish his degree and address his class at graduation. De Grasse suffered a torn hamstring that sidelined him, most notably from a final showdown with Bolt at the 2017 world championships. He changed coaches, moving on from Stuart McMillan in Phoenix to train with Rana Reider in Jacksonville, Fla. He worked on a kids’ book and became a father. He and partner Nia Ali – a world-champion hurdler from the United States – juggled training and family life.
Naturally, De Grasse wonders what the atmosphere will be like in Tokyo – a Games during a pandemic with very tight restrictions for all participants, no families or friends able to travel there and, quite possibly, no domestic fans either. Although the sports world has by now adapted to events without spectators, it would be quite a contrast from his Rio experience to race inside an empty Olympic stadium.
“Maybe they’ll do a light show or have music, or have digital fans or messages like they did in the NBA bubble – something like that so there’s energy in there and it’s not super boring,” De Grasse says. “I know I’ll get lots of voicemails and video messages from home. All the athletes are in the same boat. We just have to think about it as, like millions of people are watching us on TV, so let’s put on a show.”
His mother, Beverley, says it will be really hard not being there to watch him in Tokyo. She reminisces about the unforgettable trip to Rio. In addition to attending every one of his races, her days were filled with visits to beaches and tourist sites, such as the Christ the Redeemer statue. She remembers the agonizing seconds it took to see her son’s name posted on the video board in bronze-medal position after the 100-metre final, behind those of Bolt and American silver medalist Justin Gatlin. With a photographer following behind her, she recalls making her way through the crowd to reach down over a ledge in the stands and touch her son’s hand.
“I kept saying, ‘I’ve got to get to my son,’ and people just opened up the way for me,” Beverley recalls. “He was able to find me. That was a really fine moment for us. I don’t think any words came out. I was just in tears.”
He has remained every bit the same person, she says, despite the airport crowd that met him in Toronto, the parade in Markham, the wealth, fame, attention from sponsors and demands on his time.
“I think he’s been smart and really good. You know, you put money into young people’s hands and they want to go off and buy expensive cars and things, but he never did too much of all that,” she says. “He kept his first car that he bought in 2015 for a long time and just like two years ago he changed it. He’s very mature, and a wonderful dad.”
His brand has grown and De Grasse, who has his own charitable foundation, has become a household name in Canada with a list of endorsement deals that include Sobeys and Cheerios. The latest campaign sees De Grasse inviting fans to clip cheer cards from their Cheerios boxes and send personalized messages to Canadian athletes in Tokyo.
De Grasse began a virtual race challenge that encourages kids feeling cooped up by COVID-19 restrictions to get off the couch and run. He co-authored a children’s picture book titled Race With Me, set to be released early next month. He’s recently been reading his copy to daughter Yuri.
“If you have a bad race or things aren’t going well, kids really bring you back to earth,” De Grasse says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m here and I need food and I need my diaper changed.’ You can’t be down if kids are smiling and laughing.”
Aside from the hamstring injury that kept De Grasse out of world championships in 2017, he pulled up with another part way through the 2018 Canadian championships. In 2019 he re-emerged, winning a bronze medal with a 9.90-second 100 at the Worlds in Doha, Qatar, where he finished behind two Americans – Christian Coleman (9.76) and Gatlin (9.89). De Grasse also earned silver there in the 200 with a time of 19.95 seconds, beaten by rising young U.S. sprinter, Noah Lyles (19.83). He and teammate Aaron Brown have created an exciting national rivalry, with Brown edging past him in the 100 for Canadian titles in 2018 and 2019.
The pandemic meant very little racing in 2020. De Grasse has eased back into it in 2021 including meets in Florida, and Diamond League races at Gateshead, England; Ostrava, Czech Republic; and Doha. He wasn’t at his best in all of those. He struggled with rain, cold or jetlag at some of them. International travel took some getting used to again.
The brightest was Doha, where he came second in the 200 metres in 19.89 seconds, just shy of the Canadian-record 19.80 he ran in Rio. He was pushed by American Kenny Bednarek, who won in 19.88, and third-place finisher, Canada’s Brown (20.25).
“When I saw his 200 in Doha, I said, ‘Yep, he’s back,’ ” says Tony Sharpe, the coach who discovered his raw talent at De Grasse’s first meet at York University in 2012. Sharpe remains close with De Grasse and watches broadcasts of all his races.
“Andre’s body has so little mileage on it compared to other elite sprinters who have been running since they were young. He’s in very good hands, he didn’t do a full NCAA four-year career and put 100 races a year on his joints. I think that we could see him around for a long time if he looks after himself.”
A variety of sprinters could vie to be fastest man in Tokyo. Coleman might have been a favourite after his 2019 world title, but the American is banned from competition until May 13, 2022, after missing two visits by doping sample-collection officials and failing to file correct information on another occasion.
Sharpe says he never worries when he sees De Grasse trailing in the first 30 metres of a race, because his top-end speed is so good. Catching up is his strength.
“He doesn’t panic when he’s behind,” Sharpe says. “He’s used to seeing shirts.”
Athletics Canada’s national team head coach, Glenroy Gilbert, says De Grasse may not fit the stereotypical mould of a high-performance sprinter with his smaller frame and his easygoing personality, but he comes alive on the biggest stage like one.
“I certainly would never bet against Andre in a major championship meet,” Gilbert says. “He’ll show you all kinds of different things in Diamond League or other events but not when it comes to the Olympics or world championships. His résumé is remarkable for such a young guy and I don’t see that changing in Tokyo.”
While this won’t be De Grasse’s first Olympics, it will feel incredibly different from Rio, where he kept thinking to himself, “I can’t believe I’m here.” Yet he still expects nervous butterflies when he lines up.
“I’ll be happy if I’ve done my best in Tokyo,” De Grasse says. “Whether it’s achieving a personal best there or winning a medal, I’m trying to be the best version of myself.”