Relaxed De Grasse focused on more success and helping kids
Andre De Grasse came for a visit to his hometown in the Toronto suburbs, the place where he was first discovered at an elementary-school track meet, where he began to take sprinting seriously, where his journey to becoming an Olympic champion and six-time medallist began.
So, where is someone going to go to revisit high-school hangouts?
“I found the mall,” De Grasse says. “The mall has gotten different over there.”
He’s not wrong. Markville Mall has moved its food court and lost its Sears since the days when De Grasse was going to school in Markham. On Thursday morning, De Grasse was at one of those schools, Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy, to hand over a $25,000 donation to Kids Help Phone. The money was raised through the Race With Me challenge, a virtual event that ran last spring in which students were encouraged to run “against” the Canadian sprinter and post videos of doing so to a website that had leaderboards and other bells and whistles. Originally conceived by Jesse Briscoe, a student from Montreal who wanted to do something to encourage kids to stay active amid the throes of the COVID pandemic, De Grasse gave his name and support to the idea, which eventually had more than 3,000 participants. Briscoe, who turned 15 on Thursday, was on hand in Markham as the 26-year-old De Grasse was welcomed back to one of his old schools where, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti joked, he could probably still pass for a student.
De Grasse said the response to the Race With Me challenge, which wrapped up the month before he left for Tokyo, was overwhelming. “I didn’t realize how big an impact it would have,” he said. Kathryn Hay, president and chief executive of Kids Help Phone, said contacts went up by more than 140 per cent from 2020 to 2021 as children struggled with the impact of the pandemic, and that calls have jumped again as the school year has resumed. De Grasse, who has been open about mental health challenges he has faced over the years, said he was honoured to help.
The trip back home is part of the first extended break De Grasse has had since he won three medals, including his first Olympic gold, in Tokyo. There was still a season to finish after Japan. He ran a wind-aided 9.74 to win a 100-metre race in Oregon last month, and has had several other podium finishes in September. The busy schedule has meant the reality of his performance in Tokyo hasn’t really hit him, he said.
“I guess I haven’t really had a chance to soak it all in yet,” he said. “But it’s pretty awesome to be a part of history.”
He’s relaxed and comfortable on this day, which is in stark contrast to the last time I saw him, when he was fighting through tears after the race of his life, the 200-metre final at Olympic Stadium. Looking back, was he surprised at how emotional he was after that race?
“I mean, it meant so much to me,” he said. “You know, you’re like, this close” — he holds his thumb and forefinger next to each other — “and you don’t want to mess it up. You’re visualizing being there, you’re having dreams of it coming through, but you know you still gotta go out there and it’s gonna be a tough race and you’ve got to execute. So, for me, I was just so happy when I crossed the line. I was like, ‘Finally, I did it.’”
After his three medals at Rio 2016, De Grasse had some injury-plagued years before winning a silver in the 200-metre sprint at the 2019 World Championships and a bronze in the 100-metre race there. But it wasn’t quite where he wanted to be, after sprint legend Usain Bolt had retired and De Grasse had as good a chance as anyone to replace him on the top of the podium.
“I just felt like winning silver and bronze wasn’t good enough,” De Grasse said Thursday. “I wanted to be a champion. I wanted to be an Olympic champion — that was my goal. So, I was just ecstatic. I finally accomplished it and now I kind of feel like the pressure is off.”
With six Olympic medals, De Grasse is the most decorated Canadian male Olympian of all time, and one behind the seven earned by swimmer Penny Oleksiak. He will be just 29 years old at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, where he potentially has a chance for three more sprint medals, and keeping alive a streak of winning a medal in every Olympic race he has entered. The road to Paris will begin next month, building first toward the 2022 World Championships in Eugene, Ore.
But first, vacation. De Grasse says he has about three more weeks to hang out with friends and family and get used to being an Olympic champion.
“Just enjoy the moment right now, just enjoy the moment a little bit, and then of course get back to get back to reality, get back training and, yeah, get ready for the Worlds in 2022.”
After all, the pressure is off.