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