Competing, not cash, lures De Grasse, other Canadians to Sunday track and field meet
2019 world double medallist to race indoor 60m as headliner of star-packed field
The prospect of winning prize money isn't what brings sprinter Andre De Grasse, hurdler Sage Watson and other top names in track to an indoor meet in Arkansas this weekend.
Because there is none.
Instead, the athletes are going for something that feels every bit as valuable these days and could even lead to an Olympic gold medal. It's actual competition — much in demand with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down large swaths of their sport, and with the Tokyo Games rapidly approaching in July.
The American Track League begins a four-week indoor series Sunday at the University of Arkansas. It's a chance for athletes to see how they stack up in a time when COVID-19 has made training sometimes difficult and travelling overseas for meets almost unthinkable.
"Athletes that would typically be getting $20,000 to $30,000 to show up and race are coming just because they want to race," meet organizer/agent Paul Doyle, who represents De Grasse, said by phone. "They're actually thankful for the opportunity, which blows my mind and makes me really humbled."
The league — founded in 2013 to provide a condensed, fast-paced meet format — doesn't have a major sponsor now and will operate on a shoestring budget, meaning no prize money for the winners as of now.
And still, there's a waiting list to enter.
It'll be De Grasse's first notable event since October 2019 when he ran a personal-best 9.90 seconds in the 100 metres for a bronze medal and 19.95 in a silver-medal performance in the 200 at the world championships in Doha, Qatar.
WATCH | De Grasse runs 9.90 PB in 2019 world 100 final:
He won three medals at his 2016 Olympic debut in Rio before a pair of right hamstring injuries disrupted each of the next two seasons before the Markham, Ont., sprinter rebounded strongly in 2019.
Gemili, McLeod, Oduduru back on track
On Sunday, De Grasse will compete in the first of two heats in the men's 60 metres alongside Arkansas alum Omar McLeod of Jamaica, the 2016 Olympic champion in 110 hurdles, and Nigeria's Divine Oduduru, who ran 9.86 to win 100 gold at the 2019 NCAA outdoor championships.
The other heat features Great Britain's Adam Gemili, the 2019 world bronze medallist in the 100, and 2015 world bronze medallist Trayvon Bromell. The latter trains with De Grasse and McLeod in Florida.
Watson, the former Arizona Wildcat from Alberta, has been training at the university with coach Fred Harvey since October. She will compete in 400 hurdles on Sunday in Fayetteville.
Earlier this month, Watson returned to hurdling on the track and raising her intensity in workouts and weightlifting sessions.
"Training has been going great," the 26-year-old told CBC Sports. "I'm healthy and really looking forward to this year. My main goal is preparing for the [Canadian] Olympic trials [in June] and Games this summer."
Watson ended her abbreviated 2020 season in August after covering the 400-metre hurdles in 56.31 seconds. She has vowed to lower her national mark of 54.32.
"I think, for sure, I'll be able to run 53 seconds. I don't know when that'll be but I'm definitely capable of that," she said last summer. "I think 52-high is possible, too. It's a matter of continuing to stay healthy, staying on top of my training and making sure I'm getting in good competitions."
Pole vaulters Anicka Newell and Robin Bone round out the Canadian contingent. Earlier this month, the 27-year-old Newell won the Expo Explosion pole vault meet in Belton, Texas, and cleared a personal-best 4.70 metres to reach the Olympic standard.
The Texas-born Newell lives in San Antonio and is eligible to compete for Canada because her mother was born here.
The Toronto-born Bone grew up in Connecticut, joined the ALTIS training group in Phoenix in 2017 and worked with American star Katie Nageotte in October 2019.
Doyle has assembled a star-packed field of mostly North Americans, including high jumper Vashti Cunningham, the 2019 world bronze medallist, and 2016 Olympic shot put champion Ryan Crouser.
There will be plenty of exposure, with all four competitions — held on consecutive Sundays — televised on ESPN networks. The lineup of events changes, too, with a few — men's and women's 60 metres — contested all four weeks.
Doyle hoped to line up enough sponsors to reward the winners because it's "never the intention to have athletes run for free." But in this economy, it didn't pan out.
To save on expenses, he's hauling track and field equipment from Atlanta to Fayetteville, Ark., in his camper.
Anything to stage a meet.
Usually around this time, athletes are starting to prepare their calendars for European meets and the Diamond League series. Given the travel restrictions, lining anything up has been increasingly difficult.
With files from CBC Sports