Re­nais­sance Run­ners

How an un­likely group of friends (led by An­dre De Grasse) are re­ju­ve­nat­ing Cana­dian sprint­ing

Canadian Running - - FEATURES - By Matthew Walthert

At this year’s Cana­dian Track and Field Cham­pi­onships, throngs of fans lined the fence to get an au­to­graph from Canada’s new global su­per­star An­dre De Grasse. The heir ap­par­ent to Usain Bolt is help­ing to re­ju­ve­nate track in this coun­try, and he’s mo­ti­vated by his re­lay team­mates and com­peti­tors. Jour­nal­ist Matthew Walthert talks with this emerg­ing group of sprint­ers about De Grasse’s hum­ble­ness, their own ex­pec­ta­tions of them­selves and their po­ten­tial to do some­thing great on the world stage.

It is a warm Sun­day af­ter­noon at the Terry Fox Ath­letic Fa­cil­ity in Ot­tawa, named for ar­guably Canada’s most fa­mous run­ner. Fif­teen feet away in the me­dia tent stands An­dre De Grasse, a 22-year-old from Markham, Ont., who is chal­leng­ing Fox for that un­of­fi­cial ti­tle. Slight and unim­pos­ing, De Grasse doesn’t look like a typ­i­cal sprinter, un­til the start­ing gun sounds and he is un­leashed. Right now, he is smil­ing, sur­rounded by a dozen re­porters and pho­tog­ra­phers ea­ger to hear about the gold

medal he just won in the 200m fi­nal at the Cana­dian Track and Field Cham­pi­onships to com­ple­ment his first-place fin­ish in the 100m race on the Fri­day night.

I am stand­ing off to the side with Bren­don Rod­ney, who fin­ished se­cond in both races, and Aaron Brown, who came in third in the 200m after a false start dis­qual­i­fied him from the 100m pre­lim­i­nar­ies. Both men are also 2016 Olympic bronze medal­lists and team­mates of De Grasse from the 4x100m re­lay in Rio.

Just three Cana­dian men have quicker 100m times than Brown: Dono­van Bai­ley, Bruny Surin and De Grasse. And Rod­ney is the only Cana­dian other than De Grasse with a sub-20 se­cond 200m time, set when he won gold at the 2016 Cana­dian cham­pi­onships in Ed­mon­ton. All are world-class run­ners, but only De Grasse is draw­ing the at­ten­tion of the as­sem­bled me­dia to­day.

I ask Brown, a well-spo­ken 25-year-old po­lit­i­cal science grad­u­ate, whether scenes like this ever bother him, be­ing more or less ig­nored

HE’S GOT ALL THE HYPE, AND A LOT OF THIS CROWD IS BE­CAUSE OF HIM.

while De Grasse col­lects ac­co­lades and en­dorse­ment deals. “He’s got all the hype, and a lot of this crowd is be­cause of him,” Brown says, re­fer­ring to the packed grand­stands on the banks of the Rideau River. “He de­serves it, and it’s mo­ti­va­tion for me to try to break through. And once I’ve been able to de­liver, then I’ll have my own en­tourage.”

De­spite this im­bal­ance be­tween De Grasse and his team­mates – both fi­nan­cially and in their re­sults – they re­main friends. A lot of that has to do with the young Toron­to­nian’s hu­mil­ity. There is none of Usain Bolt’s look-at-me show­man­ship in him, although his blaz­ing speed might ex­cuse it.

“He doesn’t change,” says Rod­ney. “He’s still the same guy from be­fore 2015. He hangs out with us, he does the same things that we do.”

“If you didn’t know from it be­ing pub­li­cized, you wouldn’t know about the fi­nan­cial dis­par­ity,” Brown adds. “He acts like he’s still in col­lege with no money. But he’s do­ing good things with it, saving a lot of it, so that’s an­other pos­i­tive, that he hasn’t squan­dered what he has.”

It also helps that they all knew each other back in high­school, be­fore De Grasse was chal­leng­ing Bolt on the world stage. The re­la­tion­ship is mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial: De Grasse pushes his team­mates to run faster and, like older broth­ers, they help keep him grounded.

Sprint­ers are in­di­vid­ual ath­letes, al­ways chasing the next hun­dredth-of-a-se­cond im­prove­ment, the per­fec­tion of their tech­nique or a new per­sonal best. But for about 40 sec­onds at a time, those in­di­vid­ual ath­letes come to­gether as team­mates in the re­lay.

For De Grasse, Brown, Rod­ney and the other re­cent mem­bers of the Cana­dian team – Gavin Smel­lie, Akeem Haynes and Bo­lade Ajo­male – the ca­ma­raderie lasts beyond

those f leet­ing sec­onds of a sin­gle f ly­ing lap. Their fa­mil­iar­ity and friend­ship al­lows them to be open and frank, help­ing each other im­prove.

“I def­i­nitely ask them for ad­vice,” says Rod­ney, show­ing a wisdom beyond his 25 years. “You can learn from any­one. You can learn from peo­ple younger than you, older than you, so for me, ask­ing for ad­vice is not a prob­lem. I ask for ad­vice, they ask me for ad­vice and ev­ery­body has their own strong points, so ask­ing for ad­vice isn’t a bad thing for me. But I ask all of them, be­cause they all have dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences than me and we can all learn from each other.”

And Rod­ney isn’t the only team mem­ber will­ing to ask for guid­ance. In 2014, when De Grasse was look­ing to trans­fer schools for his ju­nior year, he asked Brown about the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia ( usc). Brown had cho­sen usc for the nice weather, yes, and the strong track pro­gram, but also for the school’s aca­demic rep­u­ta­tion – much bet­ter than Florida State and some other schools he was con­sid­er­ing.

When De Grasse ar­rived in Los An­ge­les for his re­cruit­ing visit, Brown was as­signed to show him around. They ate crab at a down­town res­tau­rant and shot hoops to­gether. “I gave him some bas­kets,” Brown re­calls, laugh­ing. The pitch worked and De Grasse spent one in­cred­i­ble year as a Tro­jan, win­ning the 2015 ncaa 100m and 200m ti­tles. A year later, he was stand­ing along­side Bolt on the Olympic podium.

It is tempt­ing to refer to De Grasse’s rise as meteoric, but a me­teor f lashes bril­liantly and then burns out. De Grasse is more like a comet, grow­ing ever brighter as it ap­proaches the sun. At such a young age, there is no in­di­ca­tion he is any­where near his peak; his team­mates are just try­ing to keep up.

The triple Olympic medal­list’s ham­string in­jury just be­fore the start of the 2017 iaaf World Cham­pi­onships in Lon­don was a blow to the Cana­dian team. But it was also an op­por­tu­nity for Brown, Rod­ney and the oth­ers to step out of their il­lus­tri­ous team­mate’s shadow and re­mind the world that Cana­dian sprint­ing is more than just one man.

It didn’t ex­actly pan out that way. First, a stom­ach virus hit the Cana­dian con­tin­gent dur­ing the com­pe­ti­tion. Then, nei­ther Rod­ney nor Smel­lie made it out of the 100m heats. Brown won his heat in the 200m, but was dis­qual­i­fied for a lane vi­o­la­tion. In the 4x100m, the team qual­i­fied for the fi­nal, but fin­ished sixth with a time of 38.59, nearly a full se­cond slower than their bronze medal time in Rio, when De Grasse ran a blis­ter­ing an­chor leg.

But still, sixth in the world with­out their fastest run­ner? It could have been worse.

Asked to pin­point the se­crets to De Grasse’s suc­cess, both Rod­ney and Brown point to his preter­nat­u­ral abil­ity to de­liver his best per­for­mances when the stakes are high­est.

It is some­thing that Rod­ney and Brown are try­ing to em­u­late, but it’s not easy, es­pe­cially when you are in the start­ing blocks and know that some­one like De Grasse or Bolt is in the lane next to you. In those si­lent mo­ments be­fore the gun, your mind can go a lot of places – places that aren’t fo­cused on your own form and tech­nique.

But even if they are not quite at his level, there is no de­tectable jeal­ousy, and De Grasse’s team­mates seem gen­uinely happy for him. In some cases, per­haps a lit­tle too happy.

Coach Si­mon Hod­nett re­cruited Rod­ney from Eto­bi­coke to Brook­lyn’s Long Is­land Univer­sity and re­mains his coach now, even though Rod­ney has grad­u­ated with a master’s in ex­er­cise science. He thinks his pro­tégé can be too friendly with his team­mates be­fore big in­di­vid­ual races – times when he should be fo­cused on him­self and what he needs to do to ex­tract the max­i­mum per­for­mance from his 6'5" body.

After Rod­ney’s win at the 2016 Cana­dian Cham­pi­onships, he ar­rived at the Olympics in Rio, but failed to make it out of the 200m heats

HE’S STILL THE SAME GUY FROM BE­FORE 2015.

NA­TION­ALS MEAN A LOT MORE NOW THAN THEY DID 5 OR 10 YEARS AGO

by just three hun­dredths of a se­cond. Ac­cord­ing to Hod­nett, he had trou­ble con­trol­ling his nerves.

Rod­ney agrees; he knows that is an area that needs im­prove­ment if he is to chal­lenge De Grasse and other top run­ners on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. “I think that’s a big thing for me right now, just get­ting men­tally pre­pared to com­pete at a high level,” he says. “I know I have the tal­ent.”

But Rod­ney’s friend­li­ness should not eclipse the fact that he is a skilled and de­ter­mined ath­lete. He wants to suc­ceed as much as any of the other run­ners out there – he just wants to en­joy him­self while he does it. “For me, the big­gest thing is just have fun,” he says. “I just want to put on a show.”

As he crossed the fin­ish line in the 200m fi­nal in Ot­tawa, he turned to look at the score­board, know­ing he needed a quick time and le­gal wind to qual­ify for the world cham­pi­onships in his best event (although his coach thinks he has the body type to run the 400m).

“The wind was blow­ing,” Hod­nett

re­calls, “and I just kept say­ing, ‘God, please let it slow down for one or two races.’”

The time was quick – 20.02, good enough for sil­ver – but the tail­wind was too strong.

Rod­ney let out a loud ex­ple­tive and dropped to the ground, head in his hands. After com­pos­ing him­self for a minute, though, he hopped back up and hap­pily posed for pho­tos and signed au­to­graphs for the fans along with De Grasse and Brown. Have fun, put on a show.

On the Wed­nes­day be­fore the 100m and 200m races at the Cana­dian Cham­pi­onships, Rod­ney was work­ing on his starts and ac­cel­er­a­tion with Hod­nett dur­ing a track break at Terry Fox. It was a hot af­ter­noon, 26 C, and nearly cloud­less. There were five peo­ple in the grand­stand hold­ing um­brel­las for shade, none pay­ing any at­ten­tion to the Olympic bronze medal­list train­ing in front of them. Even­tu­ally, Rod­ney’s workout was in­ter­rupted for the 800m of the women’s hep­tathlon. At the same time, De Grasse was host­ing an open workout for a group of jour­nal­ists at a domed track across town, in just an­other small ex­am­ple of the gap that ex­ists be­tween team­mates.

And yet, it works. If the mid-to-late 90s was the golden age of Cana­dian sprint­ing, with Bai­ley’s 100m world record and the team rack­ing up medals at the Olympics and World Cham­pi­onships, then we are in the midst of a re­nais­sance.

With such a strong field, “Na­tion­als mean a lot more now than they did five or 10 years ago,” says Brown.

But with so much com­pe­ti­tion, do De Grasse’s team­mates ever al­low them­selves to won­der, what if ? What if they had been born a few years ear­lier or later – would it be them in the spot­light?

“I would never want to be in an­other era be­cause if I was born five years ear­lier, I’d be rac­ing Bolt. Five years later, there might be some­one else,” says Rod­ney. “If you want to be the best, you got to com­pete against the best.” “Who wants an easy win?” Brown echoes. De­spite Bolt’s re­cent re­tire­ment, there will be no easy wins for these Cana­dian run­ners, ei­ther in the in­di­vid­ual sprints or the re­lay. Al­ready, the next gen­er­a­tion is mak­ing them­selves known: De Grasse, of course, but also the likes of Chris­tian Cole­man, a 22-year-old Amer­i­can who fin­ished se­cond in the 100m fi­nal at Worlds, and 25-year-old South African Wayde van Niek­erk, a 200m/400m run­ner who took sil­ver in the 200 in Lon­don and has also run a sub-10 se­cond 100.

But maybe, with a gen­er­a­tional tal­ent in De Grasse and the deep­est field in 20 years nip­ping at his heels, Doha or Tokyo will soon play host to a mag­i­cal Cana­dian evening like that Satur­day night in At­lanta back in 1996, and the coun­try’s sprint­ing re­nais­sance will con­tinue.

BE­LOW De Grasse com­pet­ing in the 200m semi­fi­nals at the 2017 Cana­dian Track and Field Cham­pi­onships

ABOVE Brown and Rod­ney just be­fore the hand­off in Rio

ABOVE De Grasse cel­e­brates his sil­ver medal per­for­mance in the men’s 100m fi­nals dur­ing ath­let­ics at Olympic Sta­dium

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