In the evolution of Andre De Grasse, joy — and success — in running fast is the constant
Ready to rise to biggest occasion because that's the only way he's known how
How many things run through your mind before the most important moment of your career? Are you flipping through your presentation notes for the 958th time? Are you so anxious about all the things that could go wrong you're getting nauseous?
Or are you calm and collected with a clear mind, knowing you've prepared for this moment your entire life and fully believing you're the one in control?
Perhaps you're like Andre De Grasse. He may have the weight of Canada on his shoulders sprinting for gold at the Tokyo Olympics later this month, but those moments before he gets into the blocks might be as humanizing as any. Has the warranty on the dishwasher expired yet? Can I get a better deal on my car insurance? These are the types of thoughts that run through De Grasse's mind, whether it be before the biggest race of his career or while watching a show on Netflix.
De Grasse needs to know what's going on at all times at all places — he is all about checklists — and he will absolutely double-check that the stove has been turned off before being perfectly at rest until the next thing creeps into his mind. If his physical sprints on the track leave you astonished, just imagine the speed of all those thoughts running through his mind.
Preparation is everything for De Grasse, and it's why for those precious seconds in the race he is completely locked in. He knows that there's been no stone left unturned, every stride has already been rehearsed to perfection, and everything that's been done to that point is what's going to lead him to the biggest prize.
The boxes he's looking to check off in Tokyo include gold in the 100, 200, and 4x100-metre relay, and after struggling with injury in 2017 and 2018, De Grasse is ready to rise to the biggest occasion because that's the only way he's known how.
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First taste of stage presence
As a kid, De Grasse loved to laugh, light up someone's day with his infectious smile or self-deprecating sense of humour, or make the case to his mother, Beverley De Grasse, as to why they needed to get a dog.
"He always wanted to have a pet," Beverley says. "He always wanted me to get a dog and I would say, 'No, no dogs are allowed.'"
Andre studied at St. Mother Teresa Catholic Elementary School in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, and two of his favourite school activities were class presentations and giving speeches in front of a big audience. He loved putting on a show and the topics he chose were primarily centred around hip hop music, basketball and, of course, dogs. Beverley would help her son prepare for these speeches, having him stand up in their living room and speak to her as if he was speaking to the entire school, working on things like posture and eye contact.
Kimberley Fernandes-Nudds was his teacher through Grades 5 and 6 and remembers his passion for learning. Even from the age of 10, Andre had a unique ability to captivate both his classmates and teachers.
"He had that confidence, that perseverance, and school came easy to him," Fernandes-Nudds says. "He had that nature, that quiet confidence about him and it really shone through in everything that he did."
As part of their curriculum, the students would participate in an oral competition in front of the whole class and the best performance from each grade would then be selected to give a speech in front of the entire school and a panel of judges in the school gym. De Grasse couldn't have been more excited to have an opportunity to shine on that big stage and prepared to deliver a memorable speech about dogs and why they make such great pets.
He went to school that day ready to make a big impression, but when he got up in front of the class and was about to speak his first words, he accidentally dropped his cue cards. Some of the kids laughed, some looked on nervously to see how he would handle it. De Grasse was cool as a cucumber because he had a trick up his sleeve no one saw coming.
Even at that young age, De Grasse needed to maintain as much control of his surroundings as possible, and so while his mother helped him prepare his cue cards with bullet points, he put in the time to memorize his entire speech word for word. He made jokes, he educated, he exuded the gleeful charm he has to this day and did more than enough to get selected as Grade 5's speech master to go ahead and speak in front of the entire school.
It didn't change Beverley's stance on getting a dog, but De Grasse has one now with his girlfriend and 2016 Olympics 100m hurdles silver medallist Nia Ali, a Shihpoo named Echo they got during the early stages of the pandemic last year.
Soon after showing off his public speaking game came De Grasse's first opportunity to participate in and get a taste of victory on the track in an organized race. In June 2004, Fernandes-Nudds and another teacher had taken all the Grade 5's out to race and see who was the fastest. De Grasse won in a landslide, and he and four others were selected to race against the fastest of the other Grade 5 students across the York Catholic District School Board in the 100, 200 and relay.
The steeper competition didn't faze De Grasse, nor the venue. Just as he was excited by the prospect of presenting to the entire school, he was only further buoyed by the opportunity to race at the York University track. Andre smoked his competition to collect his first sprint prize — a ribbon — and he did it just a lane over from where he would clinch a spot on the national team almost a decade later.
Sprinting for real
His love for basketball may have diverted him away from the track through his middle school and high school years, but fate brought him back through a chance encounter with a friend who was looking to participate in the York regionals when they were in Grade 12. Instead of just hanging out at the track, De Grasse decided he was going to make the most of the day and run himself. Adding to his good fortune was the presence of Tony Sharpe, a former bronze medallist for Canada in the 4x100 relay who now runs his own track training club called Speed Academy.
"You've got something special there, I'd love to help you," Sharpe recalls telling De Grasse. "The next round is gonna be regionals and if you don't learn how to use starting blocks, there's no way you're gonna make it out of regionals."
De Grasse humoured him, and with his path to basketball looking more uncertain, told his mother about the opportunity. Beverly was intrigued enough to meet with Sharpe, and by the weekend De Grasse was training at Sharpe's facility east of Toronto. From there it was onward and upward to an NCAA championship with the USC Trojans, the trio of medals at the Rio Olympics, and embracing all that came in terms of fame and expectations with it.
From sprinting because a friend asked him to hang out at the age of 16 to being someone who could take over the world's sprint circuit in the post-Usain Bolt era, the upward trajectory in such a short space of time was unheard of.
Dealing with major injury
De Grasse and his entire circle believed that the 2017 world championships in London was his moment to lay claim to the title of fastest man on the planet. It was Bolt's swan song, a farewell event to cap off the type of career De Grasse dreams of and the Canadian's results heading into London were stellar. He won the 200 at a Diamond League event in Rome, then followed that up with 100-metre golds in both the Oslo and Stockholm Diamond League events as well. He then came home to do the double with golds in both the 100 and 200 at the Canadian championships. His career seemed to only know one way — up.
WATCH | Andre De Grasse takes top spot in men's 200m:
Upon arrival in London after a solid camp in Monaco, De Grasse trained on the Monday leading up to the events beginning Friday. But to finish the final block session, he felt a pop in his right hamstring while speeding through a 60-metre fly sprint. De Grasse had never dealt with a major injury before so his initial thoughts were pure disbelief.
"I was thinking, 'Really? You've got to be kidding me, this is crazy," De Grasse recalls. "I really didn't know that I tore my hamstring, I felt like I was just sore and it was tight."
I was really in a depressed kind of state a little bit, I was really down.- De Grasse after suffering his first major injury in 2017
When he woke up the next morning, De Grasse knew there was trouble. He could barely walk and couldn't understand the pain he was feeling. An MRI and x-ray revealed a Grade 2 tear, keeping him off the track for three months. Here was De Grasse's first major speed bump.
"I was really in a depressed kind of state a little bit, I was really down," De Grasse says of when the reality of his injury hit. "One of the biggest races outside the Olympics — in my life — I was ready."
De Grasse remembers crying over the hurt, the anger and frustration. When you don't know where to turn, you look everywhere. De Grasse blamed his coach, therapists, everyone but himself. But he didn't want people to know he was suffering either. When people saw him he would smile through the pain, pretend that he was okay. He shied away from thinking about the injury, too. For two straight weeks, he shoved life to the side and tried to shut it down.
Trying to wrap his mind around how this could possibly happen to him, it was Ali and Beverley who had to reel him in, provide some uplifting words and even get him to look in the mirror a little bit. Beverley kept her plans to fly to London to watch her son at the world championships because her sister lives there, so they decided to have a family meal to cheer up Andre and keep his mind off things. His sponsor, Puma, arranged tickets to a soccer match for that truly British experience.
Ali had first met De Grasse at USC, where they went to school and trained on the same track, but they didn't hang out until they were in Birmingham at the same time in 2016. Ali found him quiet and reserved and that sparked her curiosity to see what he was really about. Over time, she came to see a man who is funny and authentic but who needed some prodding to truly express himself. She knew she would have to do the same to help him cope and could relate to what he was going through because she had experienced her own gut-wrenching injury at the 2013 world championships.
"I know how stressful it can be but I also know how he generally doesn't like to show his emotions or what he's really feeling, he doesn't like that to weigh on people," Ali says. "He knows that I'll make him talk, but it's still hard to see when you can clearly see it's affecting someone so deeply in the moment."
Time heals all and the constant words of encouragement pushed him to look inward. De Grasse then started to think about the things he hadn't done right: staying up late instead of getting a good night's rest or hanging out with friends instead of focusing on training. Everything had come naturally to him to this point, and it was the first time he was forced to find something deep within to overcome. How much did he truly love sprinting? How much did he want to put in the work to get through rehab and rebuild his muscle to come back even better than he was before?
WATCH | Sprinting toward gold in Tokyo:
"They're spreading all that positivity and that's how my attitude kind of shifted and changed over time," De Grasse says of both Ali and Beverley getting him out of the woods. "Things are gonna be okay, it's okay to cry, it's okay to let it out, it's okay to be frustrated and angry, but don't let it get the best of you.
"I had to remember, this is my job, this is how I stay focused," he says. "So, I have to do all the right things necessary for me to be at the top of my game."
Winning in 2019
After the slow burn that was rehab and strengthening his leg to where he could get out on the track again, De Grasse had to get back to the basics in 2018. So basic, in fact, that an A skip (high knees) or B skip (high knees with leg extensions) drill covering a distance of 10 or 20 metres was considered a "happy day." It was the first time in the entire process he felt real progress was being made and that things were coming along. Then came strides that involved jogging for 50-60 metres, and that's when it felt almost surreal to not feel pain.
"You take it for granted," De Grasse says. "It's not just running, it's running at a high speed. Honestly, after I tore my hamstring, just being able to do that at a high level was something I was really happy about.
"From a headspace [perspective], I'm a lot different because, physically, I knew that I was going to make it back, my body would recover. Doctors told me I'm healthy, I'm healed up, but it was that mental part of saying, 'Hey, you're injury-free. Let's go back out there and get confident again and have fun racing.'"
De Grasse steadily built his way back into being ready for competition, returning to the circuit in April 2018. In four 100 races he failed to crack the sub-10 mark before a test of his transformed mentality was tested. During his 200 semifinal at the Canadian championships in Ottawa, De Grasse suffered a Grade 1 strain of his hamstring. This time, De Grasse saw the bright side that at least it didn't happen during a year with an Olympics or world championships on the line. This time he would have company in recovery, too.
Ali had just given birth to her and Andre's first child, Yuri, (Ali also has a son, Titus, born in 2015) and she was looking to make a comeback of her own. Two Olympic stars, finding a way to make things competitive and fun, looking to share in their dreams and get back to the top of the mountain. They'd do little things like underwater treadmill together, and what once may have been misery loving company for De Grasse became a renewed spirit and a hot pursuit of his biggest aspirations.
"I just continued to stay positive through the process," De Grasse says of what he learned from the first injury. "I think that's really helped me now as I've gotten older, I'm more optimistic. I'm a more positive person than I was before, I used to let a lot of things get to me that don't get to me no more.
"My fans would message me all the time, wish me the best of luck, so, I would read those and really take those as motivation: The fans want to see me out there, they miss me out there, so, I'm gonna do my best to make it back for them. My cousins, my brothers and sisters, all those people that supported me no matter what took the pressure off me a little bit."
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Back on track
After podium finishes in the 200 at Diamond League events in Switzerland and Belgium, a second-place finish in the Canadian championships behind Aaron Brown followed, and he capped off 2019 with second- and third-place finishes in the 200 and 100, respectively, at the 2019 world championships in Doha.
Naturally, 2020 was about stay-at-home activities and growing as a person. De Grasse made time to get creative and write his own motivational picture book for kids titled Race With Me! There was plenty of time to be had with the kids and more life lessons along with it. Patience is key and having to be responsible for another human being has taught De Grasse what it is to prioritize someone else's happiness and someone else's development.
"You know that your kid's gonna do something silly and you're gonna have to tell them 'It's okay,'" De Grasse says. "A lot of meditating, a lot of deep breaths, use your indoor voice. You have to figure it out, you can't be angry about it."
Experiencing both significant highs and lows the last few years, De Grasse's growth has also led him to become a Resilience Ambassador with Headversity, a leading provider of mental health solutions for employers. He's hoping to help continue reducing the stigma around conversations surrounding mental health and share his story to acknowledge the reality it happens with everyone.
For 2021, De Grasse ran a handful of 100-metre races in Florida where he now resides while earning podium finishes in each of the three 200-metre Diamond League races he ran. The events in Doha and Norway were the most encouraging, where he first finished second to Kenneth Bednarek by 1/100th of a second in a photo finish before claiming gold in Oslo ahead of compatriot Aaron Brown.
On Tuesday, he won the 200 at the Gyulai Istvan Memorial in 19.97 seconds.
Learning to appreciate the present and recognize that where he is and what he's doing is exactly what's supposed to be happening in that moment, and that there's no need to mentally be anywhere else is the biggest lesson De Grasse is taking with him into the Olympics. He knows there's only one place he wants to be after running for what he hopes are a few magical seconds — on the podium with a gold medal around his neck.