TOKYO—As he zoomed toward stardom, Andre De Grasse never seemed to be carrying anything on his skinny, greyhound shoulders. He was the kid, the prodigy; he didn’t win the biggest races but would never pout, or sulk, or thunder, or cry. De Grasse would just grin, shake his head, say congratulations, run again.
Mostly, he seemed strangely unaffected by it all. It was probably a reason he was so good.
And then in Tokyo on Wednesday night, Andre De Grasse ran the 200 metres in the thick Tokyo air and won gold in 19.62 seconds, a Canadian record, and something changed. He dropped to the track and held his head in one hand; he saw his family via video on a trackside screen, his partner Nia Ali, and their two kids, and he tried to keep from crying as he told them, "have a good day."
And afterward, you could see the weight as it came spilling out. He cried on the track, behind his gold sunglasses. At times the 26-year-old could barely talk, or couldn’t talk at all. It was Canada’s first sprinting gold since Donovan Bailey, a quarter of a century ago in Atlanta, but that didn’t seem to be what was affecting him. De Grasse was asked if he had ever been this emotional, ever.
"No," he said, his voice compressed. "Of course, I was emotional when my kids … the birth of my kids. But it’s my first time being emotional on the track. I always felt like it came up short, winning bronze and silver, so it’s just good to just have that gold medal. Have that gold medal. No one, no one can take that away from me."
He had been carrying something. De Grasse’s origin story has always been preposterous. Coach Tony Sharpe spotted the skinny Scarborough kid at a high school meet with borrowed spikes and running a 10.9 without using the starting blocks. De Grasse was a natural, and maybe that was why he never seemed to get too tense, even as he sped into the public eye. He reached big podiums: silver and two bronzes in Rio, silver and bronzes at world championships, a bronze already here in Tokyo.
Part of not winning gold was life in the long shadow of Usain Bolt, the Jamaican star who won eight gold medals over three Olympics. Just part of it, though. Being a natural doesn’t mean you’re going to be anything more than a prodigy. After that comes the work. De Grasse became one of the most talented sprinters in the world, and one of the most decorated sprinters in Canadian history, but he still felt the pressure to be better, because he didn’t think it was enough.
Maybe this will be, because this was the race of his life. De Grasse had started slow in the 100 final because he worried about false starting, and he had to crank up to top speed to hold onto bronze. He had the fastest reaction time in this race, which was filled with fast Americans and teammate Aaron Brown. De Grasse’s coach Rana Reider had told him that if he was there at the bend he could win, and De Grasse came out with American Kenny Bednarek, stride for stride.
It was a gunfight at speed, and De Grasse won by six one-hundredths of a second. Bolt used to say, "He runs just like me." Bolt meant the slow start, followed by thrilling high-end speed. Maybe he also meant always showing up on the day, no matter what.
Because that’s what happened and, afterward, De Grasse kept saying, "I’m so proud of myself."
When he talked about Sharpe, he said, "I mean, of course, me and him are gonna have a big moment when I get back home, but I know he’s proud of me. And I just thank you, thank him, for getting me into this sport. Thank you, Tony. Appreciate you, man. I love you, man. And I finally did it. I finally did it."
When he was asked about seeing his family he said, "Seeing Nia, seeing my kids, you know, seeing how hard this was, that I did this for them. And they’re just back home so, I’m just is so proud, so proud of myself. So this is, this is for them. I mean, of course I put expectations on myself, but I just do it for my family, do it for my kids. And, yeah."
He couldn’t talk. Someone asked: "Fatherhood changes you, right?
"It does. It does. It does," he said, and took a long pull on a bright blue energy drink. He talked about how his six-year-old stepson Titus wants to race him every day when he comes home from practice, and he lets his stepson win. He talked about his three-year-old daughter Yuri, how she recognizes him when he’s on TV, and how she likes to wear his racing shades to imitate her dad. He talked about how Nia wants him to come home because she’s been watching the kids for six weeks, including a son born in May.
It was a picture of the kid who had become a man, and a young king. De Grasse was still so young in Rio, racing Bolt and grinning and having a blast. He said he was telling himself to be himself tonight, to run like a kid. But he has grown up since.
Andre De Grasse moved from star to legend on this night, and everything it took to get there came down on him, finally. He should probably carry the flag here now, along perhaps with Christine Sinclair, and not just because they will be two of the athletes who haven’t been sent home yet.
No, this was a Canadian moment that will last. Before De Grasse came through the mixed zone a Canadian official arrived carrying his Puma shoes, these sudden artifacts, these weightless luminescent things. But what stood out was how small they were: size nine, narrow and curved, tiny. One day Andre De Grasse will finish this journey that he’s on, and he will leave those shoes for someone else to fill.
And they’ll be big.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur