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Road to Rio: Can sprinter Andre De Grasse live up to big expectations?

En route to his first Olympics, Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse says, "It's the Olympics that count. That's where you need to peak."

Turning pro, getting a new coach and an elite training base propel him into the spotlight

Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse says he wants to break the Canadian record at the Rio Olympics 0:44

There is a moment in almost every track and field season when a sprinter knows he or she can find that extra gear to push harder, the instant speed and desire merge into pure drive, that fraction of a second when peak performance just happens.

A 10 year-old Andre De Grasse holds up a first-place ribbon after an elementary school race in Ontario. (Kimberley Fernandes-Nudds)
En route to his first Olympics, Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse is predicting when that moment will come. "It's the big show that really counts," he told CBC. "It's the Olympics that count. That's where you need to peak."

The 21-year-old from Markham, Ont., is barely a few years into a serious athletics career. But after a breakout season in 2015, De Grasse has travelled a somewhat bumpy path in 2016.

And so everything about this year has been about making sure that peak performance can be delivered come August.

It's a Road to Rio that CBC has been documenting since the new year, beginning with exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the set of De Grasse's first ad campaign shoot. It happened in January, shortly after he signed an unprecedented first contract for a track and field athlete, an $11.25 million U.S. deal with Puma.

Shoe deal brings big bucks

The photo and video shoot was in Kingston, Jamaica where De Grasse was in the company of former 100 metre world record holder Asafa Powell and reigning Olympic champion in the sprints, Usain Bolt.

Andre De Grasse during a Kingston, Jamaica photo shoot for Puma in January. De Grasse recently signed a contract with the shoe company for more than $11 million US. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)
Paul Doyle, who signed De Grasse during the off season and sealed the shoe deal, explained, "It's the best there's ever been and I mean, we had the perfect storm … Bolt approaching the end of his career, (Puma) needed De Grasse."

At the time, the life of the young sprinting phenom was undergoing tremendous upheaval. Going from student athlete to pro, he had just moved his training base from UCLA to an elite facility in Phoenix: a new environment coupled with a new coach, and big expectations to deliver on the track.  

"I'm going to try my best, live up to the challenge, live up to the hype," De Grasse told CBC. "I'm definitely just looking forward to this year and see what I can pull off with the fastest guys in the world."

As part of his Road to Rio, CBC also travelled with De Grasse to a Canadian relay camp in Florida and to his new living and working base in Phoenix, where he told CBC about sometimes getting surprise early morning visits by doping control officers.

Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse describes how drug tests are performed and why the process doesn't bother him. 0:37

An entirely new team

CBC was behind the scenes to witness a setback, likely the result of a lingering injury from a punishing 54 races as a student athlete last year.

This year the pacing and number of races as a professional have been very different, carefully calculated by an entirely new team, including Canadian coach Stuart McMillan of the Altis training group in Phoenix.

Andre De Grasse leads during the senior men's 200 metre semifinals at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in Edmonton on July 10. (Canadian Press)

McMillan has had to craft a competitive schedule that doesn't over-race the sprinter in order to keep him healthy, but not under-compete him either, so he's in peak condition for the Olympics.

This schedule is designed to set up "varying levels of pressure and chaos through the season," McMillan explained, "so going to the Olympics isn't something that's ridiculously unique."

The formula appears to be working.

Stu McMillan, Andre De Grasse's coach, describes the approach he's taken with the sprinter. 0:53

'I was battling aches and pains'

CBC was with De Grasse for his first top tier IAAF Diamond League meet in Europe in June, where his season turned around. He won the 200 metre sprint, at the same time speaking frankly about being hurt in May.

"I was battling aches and pains, I wasn't in any shape to run," De Grasse told CBC in Birmingham. "There were ups and downs, and you just try to keep going and not worry about what people are saying."

Andre De Grasse holds the Canadian flag after winning the gold medal in the men's 100 metre final at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

De Grasse has won several 100 metre races recently, including at the Canadian Olympic trials in Edmonton in 9.99 seconds, just below that magic 10-second mark that seems to separate the sprinting superstars from the rest of the field.

"It's been a whirlwind," De Grasse said in Edmonton.  "I never expected to be in this position right now, making my first Olympic team. It's a dream come true for me. I just want to keep the momentum going towards Rio, make myself proud and this country."

As part of CBC's special documentary presentation of De Grasse's story, the network will also reveal a new chapter, a moment the young sprinter had almost forgotten.

Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse gives a behind-the-scenes look at his quest for an Olympic medal at the Rio Games. 22:34

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