Pickering resident helped get sprinting sensation started with Speed Academy
PICKERING — Three years before Andre De Grasse became a household name in this country, Tony Sharpe showed up a bit early to a track meet.
If he hadn’t, De Grasse might not be a household name.
Settling in to watch one of the athletes, Josh Cunningham, run the 400-metre, Sharpe was wowed by what he saw in the earlier 100 metre, when a raw kid wearing basketball shorts and starting from a standing position breezed through the race in under 11 seconds.
Sharpe, a former Olympian who operates the Speed Academy club in Pickering, soon after approached the young man and handed him his business card, thus starting one of the more improbable success stories track-and-field has ever witnessed.
The raw talent, of course, was De Grasse, who now routinely breaks the 10-second barrier in the 100m, including on Sunday, Aug. 23 in Beijing, when a personal-best clocking of 9.92 landed him a bronze medal at the world championships.
Having won double gold in the 100m and 200m runs at both the NCAA championships and Pan Am Games this year, De Grasse’s star was already on the rise and his story told by many.
With Sunday’s result, which saw him trail only superstars Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, the 20-year-old Markham resident has moved beyond the stratosphere.
But the best is yet to come, according to Sharpe.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see him running 9.7 on a consistent basis next year,” he said of De Grasse, who is set to enter his senior season at the University of Southern California.
“All indications based on everything I know about the program, the amount of work he did and what’s left to be done, it wouldn’t be overstating that Andre is a contender to win Rio, and I’m not kidding,” added Sharpe, referring to the 2016 Summer Olympics. “I think there’s that much talent there.”
Sharpe helped bring out that talent quickly, working first on De Grasse's starts and then his other mechanics.
De Grasse ended up reaching the OFSAA final a couple of weeks after they met, winning a Toronto meet soon after that and then making his way to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, where he dominated to the point of being offered a scholarship to USC, home to coach Caryl Smith-Gilbert and one of the top track programs in the United States.
Although Sharpe said De Grasse’s mechanics were a “disaster” when he first saw him run, he felt on Sunday he was more fundamentally sound than most in a race that also featured the likes of Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay.
In fact, Sharpe believes De Grasse would have been in contention for an even better medal had he not been running from an outside lane.
“I’ll tell you now, if Andre was in the middle, I suspect he would’ve challenged for the silver medal,” said Sharpe, pointing out it would have been difficult for him to determine where Bolt and Gatlin were positioned. “He has this ability to kind of smell blood.”
As much as De Grasse has been helped by Sharpe, Smith-Gilbert and other coaches over the past three years, Sharpe said there’s an element to his success that can’t be taught.
“This guy’s a raw competitor like you’ve never seen before,” he explained, citing De Grasse’s Pan Am win in the 200m, where he slipped up early and still won despite again competing from a difficult lane. “That comes from somewhere that’s not a coachable thing. It comes from within and he’s got that ability to never give up and compete to the end.”
Sharpe, a Pickering resident, watched the race from the U.S., where he’s helping his twin daughters, Taylor and Sommer, get settled for their studies at the University of Florida and George Mason University respectively.
But he has spoken to De Grasse by phone, as he does almost daily, and reported him to be unchanged despite all the attention surrounding him.
“He’s pretty cool right now,” Sharpe said. “Andre is a mellow-yellow kind of guy. He’s always smiling, always happy.
“I’m really proud of the kid on and off the track,” he continued. “Hopefully with his success, grassroots track-and-field not just in Durham Region but Canada will start to grow now that we have somebody the kids can identify with and look up to.”
De Grasse will not run the 200m in Beijing, but he will be part of Canada’s 4x100m relay team, which begins its quest for a medal on Saturday, Aug. 29.