USC sprinter Andre De Grasse makes huge strides on and off track
LOS ANGELES – USC sprinter Andre De Grasse is favored to win the 100- and 200-meter dashes at this weekend’s Pac-12 Championships, the latest big meet in a season and future seemingly full of them for the 20-year-old Canadian.
Yet even at the end of a career with Olympic promise, the most important race of De Grasse’s life will almost certainly be his first one.
As the other competitors settled into the starting blocks for a 100-meter race in a high school meet in suburban Toronto three years ago, De Grasse, wearing baggy basketball shorts, a T-shirt and borrowed spikes, stood upright and sideways, facing the starter like he was a baserunner on first.
“Or playing shortstop,” sprint coach Tony Sharpe recalled, laughing.
It was a moment that both captured the searching of an aimless youth and marked a life’s turning point
As he stared into the infield that afternoon, Andre De Grasse, naïve and troubled and confused, a new path at his feet, was looking for direction.
“Honestly, there was no plan,” De Grasse said when asked where he saw himself headed after high school. “I had been going down the wrong path. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.”
From an early age, De Grasse has lived full speed ahead, pedal to the metal, bouncing off life’s walls, both dangerous and promising, never quite certain where he might land. He spent most of high school going nowhere fast, hanging out with a rough crowd, doing drugs, looking for acceptance in all the wrong places.
Then in fewer than 11 seconds the course of his life was changed.
“Track,” De Grasse said, “saved me.”
He was clocked in 10.90 seconds in that first race in May 2012, a highly respectable prep time under any circumstances. That it was done in hoop shorts and from a standing start without the aid of starting blocks made it all the more eye-opening. It certainly caught the attention of Sharpe, an Olympic bronze medalist and now one of Canada’s top sprint coaches.
Within days Sharpe had taken De Grasse under his wing, a pairing that launched De Grasse on a meteoric rise to a place among the planet’s fastest sprinters just three years later. More important, Sharpe and the sport gave a sense of direction to a lost soul, a belief in a young man devoid of self-confidence. Track’s white lines provided a structure to a once-meandering life.
As De Grasses sprints ahead, he is unsure of where or how far the sport will carry him yet is certain he is racing in the right direction.
“I have a chance to do something special with my life,” he said.
The Trojans junior enters the Pac-12 meet ranked in this season’s world top 10 in the 100 and 200. De Grasse blew away a pair of world-class fields at last month’s Mt. SAC Relays, becoming the first sprinter in the meet’s 57-year history to sweep the 100 and 200 outright.
His 20.16, Canadian-record equaling 200 victory is 2015’s second fastest time. The current world leading mark of 20.14 by Pitt’s Carvin Nkanata was aided by a barely legal wind of 1.9 meters per second while De Grasse’s clocking had just a 0.3 mps wind behind it. De Grasse won the Mt. SAC 100 in a wind-aided 9.87, the year’s fastest time under any conditions.
De Grasse ran a legal 10.04 in the USC-UCLA dual meet May3 equaling the meet record set by UCLA’s Ato Boldon in 1996, the same year the Bruin went on to win Olympic 100 and 200 bronze medals.
“The goal is to run sub 10 seconds and sub 20 seconds this year,” De Grasse said.
Which puts Boldon’s 19-year-old 10.03 and 20.00 Pac-12 meet records in jeopardy this weekend.
“He’s special,” USC coach Caryl Smith Gilbert said of De Grasse.
Given that De Grasse has been in the sport barely three years and remains a raw talent, very much a work in progress, Sharpe believes that as fast as his marks have been this season they only hint at the times he eventually will run.
“I’ve been in this sport 40 years, competed in the Olympics, seen a lot of fast guys,” said Sharpe, a member of Canada’s 1984 Olympic bronze medal 4x100 relay team. “In terms of pure talent, I’ve seen nothing like Andre De Grasse. With five, seven years under his belt, he could be magical.”
Even when reminded that he once trained with disgraced Olympic champion and world-record holder Ben Johnson on a daily basis, Sharpe would not budge from his assessment.
“No comparison,” Sharpe said. “Absolutely no comparison. We haven’t seen an Andre De Grasse before. We’ve never witnessed an athlete like this before.”
De Grasse grew up in Markham, a suburb of 208,000 just across Toronto’s northeast city line. His mother, Beverley De Grasse, was a successful high school sprinter in her native Trinidad & Tobago before moving to Canada at the age of 26.
“He was a very active kid growing up,” Beverley De Grasse said. “He was always bouncing, always full of energy, couldn’t keep still.”
When Andre was 4, Beverley signed him up for a soccer team. Before long he was also playing basketball and baseball.
“In basketball all he wanted to do was play, play fast,” Beverley said. “He was always quick. In soccer he’d get the ball and you couldn’t catch him.”
Somehow, however, trouble seemed to find him.
“He had no direction, wasn’t focused,” Beverley said. “He got into high school and something sort of switched. He started hanging out with the wrong crowd. He was always respectful, but he was trying to fit in with the wrong crowd.”
De Grasse, once one of the Greater Toronto Area’s most promising guards, became even more aimless when his high school, Milliken Mills, was unable to field a basketball team his senior year. On a lark, he decided to join some friends in competing at a regional high school track meet.
His stance at the starting line drew chuckles from the crowd.
“I lined up like I was running a suicide (wind sprint in basketball practice),” De Grasse said of the upright, sideways start. “That’s how you got into position.”
No one was laughing 10.9 seconds later, certainly not Sharpe who was at the meet to watch a 400-meter runner but was suddenly transfixed by De Grasse’s raw talent.
“He turns and runs 10.90,” said Sharpe, his initial disbelief still evident in his voice three years later.
“It was a blessing,” De Grasse said recalling the first race. “I wasn’t doing the right thing. I had bad grades, was hanging out with the wrong people.
“There was a lot of violence in the area I grew up at. I did bad things, drugs. Yes, I was doing drugs and a whole bunch of stuff. Track saved me, let me go onto a better future.”
Sharpe introduced himself to De Grasse after the race.
“I said, ‘You can’t go any further unless you learn how to use the blocks,’ and gave him my card and asked him to have his parents give me a call,” Sharpe said.
But Beverley De Grasse, concerned about her floundering son graduating from high school, was initially skeptical. Eventually Andre talked his mother into speaking with Sharpe. Before long, Sharpe was teaching De Grasse and not just about how to use the starting blocks.
“There was a really good kid down there,” Sharpe said recalling his early impression of De Grasse. “But there’s just this matter of good and evil pulling you in different directions. I think he was always a good kid who just needed a little bit of guidance. I told him those guys you’re hanging out with, they’re losers. Guys that don’t know what’s happening tomorrow.”
There was an authenticity in Sharpe that De Grasse connected with.
“These kids relate to someone who’s been there,” Sharpe said. “When you have single parents kids from the projects and all that stuff, a lot times they can’t relate to that guy who was born with a silver spoon.
“I didn’t always do the right things.”
In the wake of Johnson’s drug scandal at the Seoul Olympics, Sharpe, who trained with Johnson under coach Charlie Francis in the Toronto area, testified before the Dubin Inquiry, a national probe into doping in Canadian sports. Although Sharpe, a former Clemson All-American, had never tested positive for banned substances, he admitted using anabolic steroids during his career. He was banned for life from receiving federal funding.
In 2006, he started a company called Need 4 Speed and later opened Speed Academy Athletics Club, a non-profit group designed to mentor young track athletes with a “sport for life” philosophy. In 2012, Sharpe was reinstated, mediator Larry Banack writing in his decision that Sharpe had “demonstrated sincerity, contrition, remorse and a passion for the sport of track and field and the promotion of drug-free sport.”
In a letter recommending Sharpe’s reinstatement, Atlee Mahorn, chief executive of Athletics Canada, track’s national governing body, wrote, “One of the great lessons from sports is redemption. Sports give us the opportunity to overcome challenges. Those of us who were fortunate to compete in Olympic sports know this lesson very well. Tony Sharpe is one such athlete.”
Lessons that Sharpe passed on to De Grasse.
“I warned him about (drug) tests,” Sharpe said. “You can’t do drugs. I warned him about the marijuana.”
Sharpe also lectured De Grasse about his grades. In a few weeks training with Sharpe, De Grasse improved his 100-meter time to 10.50. The numbers for his grades weren’t nearly as gaudy.
“I said, ‘What are your grades like? What are your plans?’” Sharpe said. “He had no clue what he was planning to do.”
Sharpe pulled some strings to get De Grasse into Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, where he won five NJCAA titles in two years and got on track academically. During summers back home in Ontario, evenings with his old crowd, were replaced by nights where De Grasse volunteered at local youth recreational centers mentoring and tutoring kids.
De Grasse was asked what happened to his old gang.
“Some are dead,” he said. “Some are not doing anything good.”
De Grasse was pursued by several Division I sprint powerhouses but chose USC after he, his mother and Sharpe felt a connection to Coach Caryl Smith Gilbert and Trojans assistant Quincy Watts, a former Olympic 400-meter champion.
“With Coach Caryl, I just had the feeling it was the right fit for him,” Beverley said.
With Smith Gilbert and Watts and most notably Sharpe, De Grasse has found something more elusive than success on the track or in the classroom – belief.
“They taught me I could be something special,” De Grasse said. “I never thought that way about myself. I never thought I was good enough, never thought I could do something special in my life. Now I have to take that opportunity.”
De Grasse should be on a short list of favorites in the 100 and 200 at next month’s NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore. He is a lock to make Canada’s team for the World Championships in Beijing in August. In July he will return to Toronto for the Pan American Games, the local boy made good.
“He’s still learning,” Sharpe said, “but I suspect a sub 20 (in the 200) from him somewhere this season and a legal 9.8.”
In recent months, whenever Sharpe watches a major meet on television or sees sub-10.0 results from meets in Jamaica and the U.S., he has a reoccurring thought.
“I just think, ‘I wonder what Andre would do in those fields,’” Sharpe said.
This summer in Beijing, next year in Rio de Janeiro, in Zurich and Brussels and London and Eugene in the years beyond, Sharpe will get his answer.
The results from the race of Andre De Grasse’s life are already in.
Whenever Beverley De Grasse sees Tony Sharpe, she wraps her arms around him in a grateful mother’s embrace and tells him something she and her son are convinced of to their core.
“You saved his life,” she says to him. “Track saved him.”