TORONTO — Sitting in the stands at a high school track meet in Toronto three years ago, Tony Sharpe couldn’t help but notice Andre De Grasse.
It was the start of the senior boys 100 metres and seven runners were coiled tightly in their starting blocks, all sleek tights and expensive spikes.
The eighth runner was De Grasse, who stood, facing sideways, watching the starter like he was waiting to see the drop of an arm to signal the start. His attire: baggy basketball shorts and borrowed shoes.
“The gun goes off, and Andre turns, just kinda swings around like a shortstop and runs down the track in 10.9 (seconds),” Sharpe said. “As a coach, I know 10.9. You can’t do 10.9 in basketball shorts, starting sideways.”
De Grasse ran that day on a whim, invited to the meet by a high school friend. It was the turning point for the Markham, Ont., teen who was hanging with the wrong crowd and, just weeks away from graduating, had no idea where he was headed. Sharpe had a pretty good idea.
Three years later, the 20-year-old De Grasse is on pace to be Canada’s greatest sprinter ever. At the Pac 12 conference championships last weekend, he broke the Canadian record in the 200 metres, and ran 9.97 in the 100, the fastest clocked by a Canadian in 16 years.
Sprinters can go their entire careers dreaming about breaking 10 seconds, and never do it. De Grasse has done it in just three years, and is now the third-fastest Canadian in history over the distance. The two men ahead of him: Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin.
“Yeah, this kid is pretty special,” said Sharpe, who spent the week fielding calls from agents, who can sign De Grasse after his senior year at USC. “I went on record when he went to USC and said ‘This is the most talented kid I’ve seen in 40 years of track and field.’ Well, we’re seeing it now.
“He’s not normal. He’s exceptional.”
He’s also nonchalant about his accomplishments on the track. The sociology student has been more focused on school this week, juggling a tough schedule of classes and training.
He wasn’t surprised, he said, by his times at the Pac 12 meet.
“My coach has been telling me I could run these times,” he said.
He hadn’t clicked on the most recent world track and field rankings to see his name.
“Nah, but people were telling me I was second in the 200,” he said — like it happens every day. “I feel like I’m still the underdog, I’ve only been doing the sport for three years, so I’m still learning stuff.”
That’s the part of De Grasse that Sharpe loves best.
“He’s the most humble athlete I’ve ever come across,” the coach said. “He’s just so, so gifted, but he doesn’t really seem to understand what it means to him. He’s just a real, real humble soul.”
Sharpe introduced himself to De Grasse at that track meet three years ago at York University, offering to teach him how to use starting blocks. By the end of the summer, De Grasse was running 10.5, good enough to earn a scholarship to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas.
De Grasse dedicated himself to improving his grades, and credited Sharpe for giving him a “second chance to do something special.”
Sharpe, whose twin daughters Taylor and Sommer run track at George Mason University in Virginia, said De Grasse just needed some direction. He described his high school crowd as the one a guidance counsellor had “bumped into the college stream and they wandered around the building all day.”
De Grasse would transfer to USC after two years at Coffeyville.
“I used to laugh at the track sometimes, I’ve got this new toy,” Sharpe said. “I was laughing yesterday with Caryl Smith (Gilbert, his USC coach), saying he’ll run down the track and I’ll time him and he’ll come back and say ‘How was that one?’ I’ll say ‘Uh, it OK.’ And inside you’re going ‘Oh my GOD.’ He has no idea. No idea what he can do.”
Sharpe has some idea. Analyzing rates of progression, he believes if De Grasse continues to mature and get stronger, “there’s no reason he can’t run mid-9.5s.”
Usain Bolt’s world record is 9.58. Bailey’s world record in 1996 was 9.84.
Why set limits?
“It’s a stretch, but if he stays healthy and continues to improve, I don’t see what those limits are. I don’t now what his limits are,” Sharpe said.
“I might say: sky.”
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press