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Canada's De Grasse sets lofty goals for Rio Olympics

Canada's De Grasse sets lofty goals for Rio Olympics

Posted by PanamericanWorld on July 04, 2016

Athletics Canada is officially gunning for two to three medals at the Rio Olympics, a modest upgrade over the 2012 London Games where high jumper Derek Drouin was the only Canadian to grace the podium in track and field.

Don’t go telling that to Andre De Grass.

The 21-year-old sprint phenom from Markham, Ont. has designs on winning three medals himself at his first appearance at the Summer Games, and he fully expects to have Canadian company on the podium with the likes of Drouin, world champion pole vaulter Shawn Barber, and heptathlete medal favourite Brianne Theisen-Eaton.

“There’s other athletes who are way better than I am,” says De Grasse, the undisputed star of this week’s Canadian Olympic trials in Edmonton “They are veterans already. My goal is I’ve got to win three Olympic medals. That’s the goal right there in the 100, the 200 and the 4x100.”

Those are lofty ambitions, especially for a rookie. But Puma signed De Grasse to an $11.25-million contract last November with an eye to the rising star eventually becoming an Olympic champion. He believes he is capable of greatness, and so does one of the biggest shoe companies in the world.

“That’s the reason they took me on board,” De Grasse told Flo Track before his first professional race in February in New York. “They expect me to replace Usain Bolt. So I’m definitely looking forward to that challenge.”

Bolt, 29, suffered a hamstring tear Saturday at Jamaica’s Olympic trials, and was unable to compete. The reigning two-time Olympic champion in the 100 and 200 metres is expected to receive a medical exemption and run in Rio.

The question is, how fast will he be able to run. And, even if he is healthy, American Justin Gatlin is considered the favourite for gold in the 100 metres.

The 200 metres, however, is wide open. De Grasse specializes in that distance, and he has an innate ability to shine when the odds are stacked against him.

After all, this is a kid who never raced competitively until Grade 12. In fact, he looked like a shortstop at the start line. standing upright and sideways at his first high school meet wearing basketball shorts and borrowed track spikes.

Somehow, he finished second in 10.90 seconds – prompting sprint coach Tony Sharpe to hunt down the kid they called “Tips” after the race.

Within weeks of working with Sharpe, De Grasse ran the 100 metres in 10.59 seconds.

“We started seeing this incredible progression,” Sharpe says. “Guys train their whole lives and they never run a 10.59. I realized this guy is not the norm. He’s a monster.”

As fast he could move on the track, De Grasse was going nowhere off it. Basketball was his passion – the Toronto Raptors’ dinosaur adorned his bedroom wall – and he wanted to become the next Vince Carter.

“I played basketball every day,” De Grasse says. “Monday to Sunday. I couldn’t put up enough shots.”

But back in 2011-12, Milliken Mills High School didn’t field a basketball team – leaving De Grasse to hang out with the wrong crowd as he finished Grade 12.

“Typical of these frigging kids, he had no plan,” Sharpe says. “He was going to go back to school for another year, like he was doing a fifth-year victory lap.”

Without the required grades or classes, university was out of the question. So Sharpe, who won bronze for Canada in the 4x100 at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, arranged for the talented youngster to attend Coffeyville Community College in Kansas.

From there, De Grasse landed at the University of Southern California where his trajectory continued to skyrocket.

Fun, for a sprinter, is watching the number on the scoreboard dip lower and lower. De Grasse shattered the 10-second barrier for the first time last May in the 100-metre dash by stopping the clock at 9.96 seconds. He also broke the Canadian record in the 200 metres that weekend and proceeded to break it again at the 2015 Pan Am Games in 19.88 seconds.

That performance — running blindly in lane eight just 48 hours after winning gold in the 100 metres — is vintage De Grasse.

“Once you fall behind in lane eight, it’s over,” Sharpe says. “To come back and win? That’s hard. That’s not even speed. You can’t coach any of that. That’s desire beyond the norm. There’s just no quit in him.”

Exhausted from a crazy season, De Grasse opted to race the 100 metres instead of the 200 last summer at the world championships in Beijing. He went in as an underdog and won bronze in a new personal-best of 9.92 seconds.

From there, De Grasse turned pro and moved to Phoenix to train in the oppressive heat under Stuart McMillan alongside some of the best sprinters in the world.

“He’s very, very wound,” McMillan tells a visitor after a morning session on the track at Paradise Valley Community College in the shadow of Camelback Mountain. “He’s very springy, like a bouncy ball. You take a really tight hard bouncy ball and you throw it up against the floor and it bounces very high. That’s what he is. He’s extremely, extremely fluid in the way he moves.

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