TOKYO—His heart was banging. His heart was bursting. His lungs were bursting.
And behind his groovy signature shades, where nobody could quite see, Andre De Grasse was weeping.
From the sheer joy of it, the transcendent fulfilment of it, the accomplishment that has been much of a lifetime in the incubating, from early years when nobody was looking and later years when everybody was looking.
In a near perfectly executed 200-metre sprint Wednesday, De Grasse grasped gold.
Don’t believe it when an athlete, an Olympian, says how pleased he is with silver, how over the moon she is with bronze. There is a special breed of human beings who won’t ever be satisfied knowing there is someone else out there faster, stronger, higher.
On this evening, in this race, De Grasse was better than all the rest — all the very best — and he was overwhelmed, almost faint from the feat of his feet, nearly wrecked in body and soul.
“I was trying to keep the emotions in,” said the 26-year-old sprinting phenomenon, who hardly looks like a sprinter, really. Muscular, sure, taut in ligaments and sinew, but whippet compact — a kind of pocket rocket, coiled for the breakout burst on the starter’s pistol, then flying, arms pumping, feet barely touching the ground, lunging with straining neck across the finish line.
“I mean, all the things that I’ve been through leading up to this moment. I was just, just, just trying to keep it all in. Of course my shades probably blocked it a little. I was crying a bit. I was just so happy and so proud of myself that I did it. Yeah, I was just waiting for the moment, man.
“This moment, I was just speechless.”
De Grasse blazed down the stretch, overtaking the American leader and crossing the line in 19.62 seconds, smashing the Canadian record he had set on the same track 24 hours earlier.
“I finally did it, I finally did it.”
Silver no more, as he had been in Rio five years ago, a skinny kid in the backdraft of sprint king Usain Bolt. De Grasse was still a racing callow 21-year-old then, not even fully appreciative of his own talent, of what was still lying within, waiting for this stupendous moment in the withering heat and dripping humidity of a Tokyo night.
Gold in the 200, bronze in the 100 on Sunday, perhaps more to come in the men’s 4x100 relay. All that jangling hardware and he’s nowhere near done. Because this is what he does, what he was born to do, even if he came to the sprinting game relatively late. He was discovered at a regional meet by sprint guru Tony Sharpe; he was a Grade 12 kid in basketball shorts and borrowed spikes. Now Puma makes bespoke spikes for him, the footwear he took off and remembered to point at the TV camera after the race Wednesday for their endorsement closeup. How he managed to keep everything clicking in his synapse-fritzing brain is a question for another day.
On this day, on this night in an Olympic Stadium open to the skies, he had risen into the panoply of legend. Everything in him was racing, propelled to the finish, surrounded by three American men as he stormed through the final 30 metres. Then, when no one could touch him anymore, he collapsed to the ground, on his hands and knees.
He was still racing emotionally and psychically an hour later, careering from one broadcast crew to another — he must have done a dozen interviews, including those that weren’t obligatory — before finally arriving in the mixed zone, still wrapped in his victory-lap flag.
“My heart was racing; I don’t think my heart’s ever felt like that in my life,” he said of his on-track celebration. “I thought I was going to pass out for a second. I was on the floor, I was just dying. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is crazy.’ I just had to lay there … I was so tired.”
It was his sixth race in five days, including heats and semis for the 100 and 200. Although his eye was always on the 200-metre prize, his stronger distance.
Canadian decathlete Damian Warner, sitting first halfway through his competition, watched it unfold hard on the heels of his own 400: “I had a front-row seat. I’m happy for Andre. He’s had a lot of competitions finishing silver and bronze. And I know how tough that can be because I’ve been in a similar situation. But he’s been doing it against really tough competition. It’s really cool to see him persevere and go out there and finally win.
“Now he’s the top dog that other people will be chasing.”
As sprints go, this one was a beauty. Noah Lyles, from the U.S. and the top-ranked runner in the 200 this year, was in Lane 3 and ahead of De Grasse coming out of the turn. But the Markham native, who had posted the fastest semi on Tuesday, had plenty in the well of will to draw from. Scorching in Lane 6, De Grasse summoned reserves of energy to push into his highest gear, with more track ahead than the 100 had offered. He overtook Lyles while being pursued by another American, Kenny Bednarek.
De Grasse’s triumph was the first for a Canadian Olympic sprinter since Donovan Bailey hurtled across the finish line first in the 100 metres at Atlanta in 1996, and the first in the 200 since Percy Williams copped gold at the Amsterdam Olympics 93 years ago.
He knew it was going to be a fast race, knew tactically he had to be the fastest coming off the bend, because coach Rana Reider had laid out the strategy. As De Grasse recounted it: “You got to get off that bend, you got to be in contention coming off that bend, because your strong part of the race is coming home. But if you’re not off that bend, you don’t get off the blocks, you can’t win this race. Like, there’s no way.’
“If you can do that, he told me, you’re physically fit. It’s going to come down to here, mentally.” De Grasse pointed at his temple. “For me, that’s what I did. I just said: ‘I gotta go after it, I gotta make it happen.’ And as soon as I got off that home stretch, I just tried to stay relaxed, keep my composure and just bring it home strong.
“I was just, like, finish strong. Finish, finish, finish strong. I know the Americans are coming, but just breathe. Stay relaxed, stay composed.”
Bednarek, a 22-year-old from Wisconsin, took silver ahead of Lyles, the reigning world champion. Erriyon Knighton, a 17-year-old high school kid from Florida, finished fourth. De Grasse’s compatriot, Aaron Brown, came in sixth with a time of 20:20.
Brown, who was contesting his first individual final — he was part of the 4x100 relay, with De Grasse, that captured bronze in Rio — raced with a photo of his wife Preeya and their infant son Kingsley pinned to the inside of his bib number.
“I’m looking forward to the relay,” Brown said, laughing. “He goes from being my rival to being my teammate ... versus in this race, where it was like, ‘Andre get back here!’ ”
De Grasse showed composure when he climbed up to a monitor after the race for face time with his family: girlfriend Nia, their kids, ecstatic at their home in Jacksonville, Fla. — well, maybe not the newborn son, who was placidly unaware.
“It was special. Seeing Nia, seeing my kids ... This is for them. I put a lot of expectations on myself, but I just do it for my family, I do it for my kids.”
And then his face crumpled, and he admitted to reporters he had never been this emotional before except for the birth of his children. He conceded too, for the first time publicly, that silver and bronze hadn’t been enough, that he had yearned so passionately for the pinnacle podium.
“I always felt like I came up short winning bronze and silver, so it’s just good to have that gold medal.
“No one can take that away from me.”
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno