Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Medal hopeful De Grasse is turning potential into performance
Trainers and fans alike know there's something 'special' about Andre De Grasse, who ranks among the world's fastest men
There is a lot riding on each of Andre De Grasse's multimillion-dollar legs. The 21-year-old's performance may be the most-scrutinized of any Canadian's at the Olympic Games. Wheels such as his are rarely seen so far north, and he carries himself with a sprinter's impudence. He has confidence bordering on cockiness, not uncommon to the rare speed merchants who can go from the starting blocks to 36 kilometres an hour in less than 10 seconds.
A runner for only four years, the teacher's son already ranks among the fastest men in the world. That makes his potential more mesmerizing, and it convinced Puma, the German shoe manufacturer, to sign De Grasse to a $11.25-million (U.S.) contract last year. Puma also sponsors Usain Bolt, the Jamaican world-record-holder with whom De Grasse will try to match quicksilver strides over 100 and 200 metres in Rio de Janeiro.
The last Canadian hot rod to win an individual sprint medal at the Summer Games was Donovan Bailey, who captured gold two decades ago.
"Canada has been starved for the next great sprinter, and I think that has helped catapult Andre into the spotlight," his agent, Paul Doyle of Atlanta, says. "His [Puma] contract is not based on what he has accomplished. It is about what he could do in the future.
"I think he is going to achieve a high level, but what nobody can guess is exactly what that is. Will he break Usain Bolt's records? I see no reason why Andre couldn't be that guy. He has a lot of qualities that indicate if anyone is going to do it, it will be him."
Just one of four Canadian 100m runners to break the 10-second barrier, De Grasse burst onto the scene last June by winning the 100m and 200m races at the 2015 NCAA track and field championships, and repeated the feat a month later at the Pan American Games.
He then ran a career-best 9.92 seconds in the 100m final at the International Association of Athletics Federations world championships in Beijing, finishing tied for third. At 9.79 and 9.80 seconds, Bolt and Justin Gatlin of the United States were an eyelash faster, but De Grasse's performance captured the attention of the track world – and Puma's with it.
"He ran a 9.92 and signed for $11.2-million," says Doyle, a former decathlete who represents many of the top track stars in the United States. "There are guys who have run 9.93, and they have $20,000 contracts. There is clearly something different people see in him."
So new to the sport that he got lost on his way to the podium for the first time as a 12th-grader, De Grasse was born in Scarborough and grew up in the Toronto suburb of Markham. He preferred basketball in his youth, but took a stab at running at 17 and exploded from the starting line like Nike, the goddess of strength, speed and victory. His early efforts caught the eye of Tony Sharpe, a coach and former Canadian sprinter who helped him get a scholarship to a junior college in Kansas with a top track program, and that led two years later to him getting a scholarship at the University of Southern California.
Then came last year's sudden success, and the money that went with it.
"It has changed our life," says his mother, Beverley, who was a sprinter in high school in Trinidad and Tobago before she came to Canada. She is Andre's confidante and greatest fan.
"My mom is my everything," he says. "When times get tough, she is always only a phone call away. She helps me get over the hump sometimes. I wish I could be with her all of the time."
Deciding to forgo his final year of NCAA eligibility, De Grasse turned professional last December and has been working at a training complex in Arizona that draws athletes from all over the world. He initially struggled with the gruelling practice schedule arranged by his new coach Stuart McMillan; the previous season, he had raced often and trained significantly less.
At one point, De Grasse was beaten so consistently during practice that McMillan mulled withholding him from this year's indoor track season. But then De Grasse breezed through those events, and hasn't looked back since.
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
"It is hard to quantify, but what makes Andre special is that he is flat-out a competitor," Doyle says. "Certain athletes have that, and it is what really makes a difference."
The staff De Grasse works under in Arizona also includes Dan Pfaff, who was Bailey's coach when he won the 1995 world championship and the 1996 Olympic gold medal.
Bailey, who sees a lot of himself in De Grasse, came to watch him at the Canadian championships in Edmonton last month.
"I hated training, but I hated losing even more," Bailey says. "I completely understand where Andre is coming from."
De Grasse appears to be peaking in the run-up to the Olympics. He ran a 9.9 while winning the 100 at the national trials in Edmonton in early July, and won the 200 at an international meet a week later.
In Rio de Janeiro, he will carry with him the hopes of a medal-hungry country. Everyone knows Usain is a Bolt of lightning. Canadians are eager to see if Andre is just as fast. (He will also compete as a member of Canada's 4x100-m relay team.)
He was mobbed recently during a personal appearance at a youth track meet in Toronto, and stayed afterward each time he ran in Edmonton to sign autographs and pose for pictures with young fans.
We will find out soon if he is an Olympic champion, but he plays the part well.
"He has a way with people," says Brian Levine, president of a Toronto sports management company that counts De Grasse among its clients. "He is humble but confident, with a little bit of swagger … in a very healthy way."