PHOENIX, Arizona — Picture a staircase. The steps can be the simple wooden boards of a prairie cabin or sheets of solidified light held in glittering constellation by wires or magic. Yours is never going to look exactly like the one in Andre De Grasse’s head, so don’t waste energy worrying about that.
De Grasse is the first Canadian since Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin with a genuine shot at an Olympic medal in the 100-metre dash, and once he gets upright, he runs with a stride as close to perfection as exists on this planet. But sprinters start in blocks, and it takes a crucial string of movements to get from the crack of the pistol to the thoughtless, fluid joy of a full gallop. “Andre didn’t really understand how to incrementally raise his hips and shoulders [with each] step,” says Stuart McMillan, who became De Grasse’s coach in late December. “He would try to stay low until he could no longer do that, and then he would just stand up quickly and run.”
To help De Grasse better understand what McMillan calls “the rhythm and rise of acceleration,” the coach told the 21-year-old to imagine himself running up a never-ending staircase. Its first step had to be deep — two metres from lip to riser — beginning directly in front of the blocks. The stairs would continue that way for a few steps, demanding long, powerful initial strides, then they’d shorten, coming faster and faster until they were only a foot apart. The sound of his footfalls would build like a drumroll as he climbed, his hips and shoulders would rise bit by bit, and the crescendo would find him upright and moving at full tilt. “He took to it fairly well,” says McMillan. “He now has a really good understanding of rhythm and rise. It’s pretty much automatic — he doesn’t have to think about it.”
Not thinking is key for De Grasse, both in terms of the staircase in his head and the goal it was built to help him achieve. When he takes his place in the blocks in Rio, focusing on technique won’t make him faster, and neither will the desire to live up to the expectations of his friends, family, sponsors or country. In a field that’s likely to include the six fastest men who’ve ever lived, a stray thought could cost him a step, a metre, a race. De Grasse could come home with Canada’s first sprint medal in 20 years. All he has to do is tune everything out and run.
De Grasse has been running competitively for just four years, but he’s always been fast – at least according to his mom. A sprinter herself in her high-school days, Beverley De Grasse moved to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago in 1987. She settled in the Toronto area, near a brother and sister who’d immigrated earlier, and found a job in her field, working as an early-childhood educator. De Grasse was born in 1994, and from the moment he could walk, Beverley was forced to devise ways to channel his energy. “I would take him to the park and have him run after me to tire him out,” she says. “I’ve always seen that speed in him, from like, two, three, four years old.”
Beverley loved track and harboured the hope that her son would take it up, but she’d raised a basketball player. De Grasse first stepped on the court around the age of five. He graduated from house league to rep ball in Grade 7 and earned a spot on a travelling AAU team a few years later. “I tried to get him to [run track] when he got to high school,” Beverley says, “but he was just so focused on basketball that he didn’t really want to do it.”
In 2012, De Grasse’s final year at Milliken Mills High School in Markham, Ont., he was one of just two returning players who came out for the basketball team. Two turned out to be too few to keep it from folding, and when it did, De Grasse was left without much of a sense of what to do with himself. He petitioned his mom to let him transfer — something he’d already done once in the name of basketball – but she shut him down. “You’re in Grade 12,” Beverley recalls telling her son. “Go focus on graduating, going on to college and doing something with your life.”
What De Grasse wanted to do with his life, though, was play basketball, and stripped of that option, he drifted. He made it through most of his senior year without developing a clear sense of his hopes and aspirations — a phase Beverley sums up as “normal teenage stuff.” In May, he ran into a friend named Mikhile Jeremiah on a city bus. De Grasse was headed home; Jeremiah, who went to a different high school, was on his way to track practice. Jeremiah told De Grasse there was a meet coming up and he should come out and watch. De Grasse remembers his response: “I was like, ‘All right, I don’t want to watch. I’ll come race you or something.’”
Beverley was skeptical when her son told her on the morning of the meet that he was going to run in the York Regionals. “He doesn’t have spikes, running clothes, anything like that,” she explains. “So I said, ‘You just want to be out of school for a day.’” Her doubts were likely echoed in the grandstands when De Grasse stepped to the line for the senior boys’ 100-metre final that afternoon: As the rest of the field settled into their blocks, De Grasse, who didn’t know how to use them, stuck with a standing start. He was wearing baggy basketball shorts and spikes he’d borrowed from a friend of a friend. The pistol cracked, and he took off. “I was using all basketball speed,” he says. “I was thinking about it like, ‘I’m on the basketball court, just running down the court.” He finished second.
Tony Sharpe was at the York meet to watch an athlete of his run the 400-metre. A bronze medallist alongside Ben Johnson in the 4×100-metre at the ’84 Games in Los Angeles, Sharpe coaches an elite youth track club in Pickering, Ont., called Speed Academy. That afternoon, he arrived a bit early — just in time to catch the 100 and see De Grasse turn in a sub-11-second time with his neck bent back and face pointed to the heavens. “When you run 10.9 — electronic timing — when you haven’t trained for track, you’re fast,” Sharpe says. “That’s not easy to do. Unless you’re a university running back or something. But this guy’s just a little skinny average guy — doesn’t even look like a basketball player – flashing his head around.”
Sharpe approached De Grasse that afternoon and handed the 17-year-old a business card with instructions to pass it along to his mom. De Grasse came out to his first practice the following week. “He took a couple of 30-metre runouts, and I look at the watch and go, ‘My God,’” Sharpe says. “When a kid like Andre goes by, you don’t have to turn. As a coach, you know the sound. Can’t really describe it. Just know that when his spikes are hitting and leaving, you’re hearing a special sound — just kind of ripping the track — you know this guy can motor.”
Under Sharpe’s tutelage, De Grasse learned to use blocks and stop running with his head thrown back. In the two months they worked together, his 100-metre time dropped four-tenths of a second to 10.5, good enough to warrant a scholarship offer from a junior college in Kansas. In his first year in the States, he set the Coffeyville Community College record in the 100, running a wind-aided 9.96. The next year, he became the fastest-ever Raven over 200 metres. He left the school in 2014 with five NJCAA titles and a guaranteed spot on the track team at the University of Southern California.
USC, De Grasse says, is where he “learned how to do everything.” A new level of technology came into play when he started training with head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert. He ran drills he’d never seen before, attended his first film sessions and improved his speed and endurance. But the first months of training were tough – a reality check. “When I got there, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he says. “We had to wake up at five in the morning to run hills. I’m like, ‘Man, I really gotta do this right now?’”
As the season progressed, though, things got easier — in part because he saw the payoff for the work he’d put in. At the NCAA Outdoor Championships in June, De Grasse ran a 9.75 to win the 100-metre. Forty-five minutes later, he posted a 19.58 in the 200-metre to complete the double. Both runs would have obliterated standing Canadian records, but they were aided by tailwinds slightly above the allowable limit. Still, that hour made De Grasse the sixth- and seventh-fastest human being ever across 100 and 200 metres, respectively, in all conditions. “What he did at the NCAAs last year had never been done before,” says McMillan. “It’s the single greatest day in the history of the sport.”
A month later, facing intense hometown pressure at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, De Grasse managed another double gold, setting a Canadian 200-metre record in the process. He then capped the 2015 season with a bronze medal in the 100-metre at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing. In December, he went pro. Three and a half years removed from the bus ride that changed his life, De Grasse had inked his name to a Puma contract worth a reported $11.25 million and cemented his status as the face of the Canadian Olympic team in Rio. And before the month was out, he’d make what he considers the toughest decision of his life as a runner: leaving USC.
Tuesday morning in north Phoenix doesn’t exactly come to mind when you hear the words “hustle” and “bustle,” but by the time De Grasse has arrived, been massaged and stretched out, and run a warm-up, the track at Paradise Valley Community College has been busy for hours. PVCC is the main outdoor training facility for ALTIS, the track-and-field brain trust that employs McMillan, and today, a good percentage of the program’s 118 elite-level athletes are in attendance. Dressed on-brand and in fabrics that may not yet be available to the general public, they lie on training tables, hurl medicine balls and run on the track or the infield. Each activity is both isolated and surprisingly connected to everything going on around it. The athletes all work alone or in small groups, but they keep an eye on one another, cheering runners as they pass and shouting encouragement when a jumper rises from the mat. Everyone in attendance is half-deer as soon as they start to move.
De Grasse works on the soft grass of the infield with a coach named Brendan “BJ” Cole. He’s dressed all in black, with blue laceless shoes that tighten with hard plastic clicks when he turns a dial on the tongue. He hasn’t yet found a barber he trusts in Phoenix, and his hair has grown out just enough to make him self-conscious, about half an inch. He’s broad across the shoulders, but thin everywhere else. When he moves, you’re struck first by how light he seems and second by the power he’s able to generate — it has no obvious source. Cole runs De Grasse through a series of footwork drills, reminding him to soften his contact with the ground. Even in training it’s shocking how hard De Grasse’s feet hit; his legs seem to coil and snap at the grass. At one point, McMillan walks by and tells him to “quiet” his feet: “You’ve been out all night, your girl’s in bed, and you’ve got to sneak in without waking her.” De Grasse laughs and shakes his head.
It’s late April, and De Grasse and McMillan have been working together for just four months. There’s an obvious rapport — one Beverley credits to McMillan’s willingness to treat her son like a professional — but the two men are still in the feeling-out process. “A change eight months out [from the Olympics], you’re kind of rolling the dice,” Sharpe says. “To learn you and understand you in eight months when somebody’s had you for a year and has brought you to that level — it’s a tough decision. You’ve got to be a little nervous.”
De Grasse doesn’t seem nervous, but he does acknowledge that the decision “was 50-50.” He wanted to stay at USC. He appreciated Smith Gilbert and her unparalleled knowledge of his body and its strengths and limitations. But he knew that after going pro, he couldn’t rely on the same level of attention from a coach whose primary responsibility lay with college athletes. He also knew he wouldn’t be guaranteed the same access to USC facilities and training staff. “Usually, when you go to a [college] meet, you’re gone Thursday and come back Sunday,” De Grasse says. “That leaves me three days [a week] with” — he pauses, as though looking around campus for coaches, physiotherapists and training partners — “with who?”
ALTIS offered an environment in which he could work alongside other pro athletes and never want for time on the training table. The former was a welcome plus, the latter a necessity. “He ran 54 races last year,” notes McMillan, “which is almost unheard of — it’s a lot of races.” At full speed, De Grasse “hits the ground harder than almost anybody in the world,” McMillan says. “When you’re hitting the ground at four and a half [to] five times [your] body weight over and over again, you’re destroying your feet and lower legs. We had to spend the first five or six weeks getting him feeling better.”
De Grasse clarifies that he wasn’t hurt, just tired – though a toe injury did sideline him for parts of April and May. “I was just slow,” he says, laughing. “Every rep I did I was like, ‘Man, I feel like I’m average now — I’m nobody. If I had to race somebody right now, they would beat me.’ My body was just so beat up that those races caught up to me and said, ‘Hey, you can’t run this indoor season. You’ve got to just relax, take time off and get ready for the outdoor season.’”
McMillan has brought De Grasse along carefully. After placing eighth in the 100 at the Prefontaine Classic in late May, De Grasse turned in a season’s-best 20.16 to win the 200 at a Diamond League event in Birmingham, England. He followed that with a 100-metre win in Oslo four days later.
“I think the key for [McMillan and] those guys down there is don’t break what’s not broken,” Sharpe says. “Please. Kid gloves. Look after the guy and he’ll perform.”
De Grasse walks into a photo studio in a small strip of industrial buildings later that Tuesday afternoon. He drove over from his Phoenix condo in the Honda Accord he bought himself after becoming a multi-millionaire and arrived alone — no reps or handlers — carrying his own wardrobe. After greeting the photographer and crew, he apologizes for not being able to lay hands on a pair of black sneakers. The closest he could come was black and blue.
De Grasse isn’t a natural in front of the camera, but he’s a co-operative subject. He brings a good-natured effort to the shoot, focusing intently on the photographer’s directions and offering suggestions of his own when they might be helpful. The impression is consistent with the one he gives in conversation: easygoing, quick to laugh and generous — willing to meet you more than halfway. “People fall in love with him,” says Beverley. “He always has a smile, he’s always respectful, he doesn’t argue with people, he’s not confrontational. People like him and they want to help him. It’s been like that even since elementary school.”
Some 3,000 km away, the Toronto Raptors are battling the Indiana Pacers in the fourth quarter of a closely contested game five. During breaks in the shoot, De Grasse checks the score on his phone. With roughly two minutes left and Toronto up six, the score no longer cuts it, and he asks if there’s a way to watch the end of the game. The studio has no TVs, he’s told, so he MacGyvers one of his own, FaceTiming a friend he knows will be watching and getting him to point his phone at the screen. The crew huddles around De Grasse, and the Raptors hang on to win 102–99. “When I’m not racing, I’m just chilling. I’m mellow. I’m watching basketball,” De Grasse says. “My mind’s kind of off track.”
It’s this ability to compartmentalize and conserve mental and emotional energy that may prove most useful in Rio. “I’m still waiting for him to run all out, either in training or in a race,” McMillan says. “He understands when to really let go and give 100 percent. And he has a really natural understanding of how to layer that over time so he’s not fatiguing himself too early. I make fun of him every day: ‘When are you going to actually start running?’ Because he gets beat every day by every single guy I’ve got. He’s my worst guy. But then he goes out and beats all of them in a race.”
In Rio, De Grasse will push himself to the emotional and psychological limit. “I think track is more of a mental thing,” he says. “You [can be] physically tired, you know your legs are dead, but at the same time, you’ve got to just tell yourself, ‘I can do it. I can’t give up.’ You’ve got to go out there and perform. Just make magic, make it happen. I try to do that every single time I step on the track.”