When the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro came to a close in 2016, there were some certain conclusions. Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps were unassailable legends. Ryan Lochte had just learned the concept of “security-camera footage.” Brazil sure did like its soccer. And Andre De Grasse was about to dominate sprinting.
Only the last of those certainties has failed to remain certain. But there is still time.
De Grasse was one of the stars of Rio, and not just to a Canadian audience. He won three medals in the sprints, bronze in the 100-metre and 4×100-metre relay, and a silver in the 200-metre, where he finished just off of Bolt’s standard. Beyond the results, he shared on-track smiles and hugs with the Jamaican star, who had genuine respect and admiration for the much smaller and younger Canadian. And with Bolt on the verge of retirement, it looked like his sprint crown would be available for De Grasse, then just 21, to scoop up.
Instead, the past two-plus years have been a lesson on the knife’s edge on which a track athlete’s fortunes must always balance. Their bodies are honed to the limits of human performance, and it doesn’t take much to throw the whole thing out of commission. De Grasse missed the World Championships in 2017 with a hamstring injury, and then the same thing happened a year later. Olympians often have a slow build back up to peak levels in the years between Games, but this was something else entirely. De Grasse just wasn’t able to compete.
But, in 2019, a breakthrough. De Grasse was finally healthy, finally competing through a track season. At the World Championships in Doha, Qatar, in late September, he reprised his finishes in the individual races at Rio — bronze in the 100-metre, silver in the 200-metre. De Grasse is back on track in both the literal and figurative sense. And, with just over six months until Tokyo 2020, he also has a good sense of timing.
“It was definitely a moment of relief,” De Grasse says of making a podium again at last. De Grasse, 25, was back in his hometown of Markham, in the Toronto suburbs, over the holidays, hosting a youth basketball tournament.
“Going through two years of injuries was pretty tough for me, so definitely just getting back out there on the track and feeling like my old self again, that felt pretty good.”
But it has, obviously, not been the smoothest of paths. There were the injuries, and a coaching change, and De Grasse relocated his training base from Arizona to Florida. All the while, the clock to Tokyo was ticking down, and the Canadian hadn’t come close to his Olympic form.
“I had some doubt in my mind. There were some mental aspects,” he says.
Sometimes, athletes find it easier to take such setbacks in stride when they have already stacked up impressive accomplishments. De Grasse is the only Canadian sprinter to win three medals in a single Olympics. Given that, did it take a little of the sting out of his long layoffs?
“Nah,” he says, with a shake of the head. “Not really. It was great to win three Olympic medals, but I’m kind of, like, ‘I’ve accomplished bronze, I’ve accomplished silver, but I’m missing that gold medal.’ ”
“I know it’s great, and it’s humbling, but there’s more to accomplish. I feel like there’s always more that I can do. I’m still young, I can do this Olympics, I can go to another Olympics, I just want to put myself in the history books and have people know that I was one of the best. I kind of just tell myself that every day.”
And, he says, that gold medal is out there. Between the Olympics and the World Championships he has seven medals so far, but the one race that felt different was at the 2015 Pan-American Games in Toronto, where he finished in first.
“I just want to feel how I felt when I won that gold,” De Grasse says. “It was great to win all those medals in between, but winning the gold at the Pan-American (Games), it was a different feeling that I can’t really describe. But I want to bring back that feeling. That experience was like no other.”
The schedule for the build-up to Tokyo is not yet set, but there is the indoor season coming up, and nationals in early summer. De Grasse says if there was something to be gained from the adversity of his lost seasons, it’s that it has shown him setbacks can happen. And they can also be overcome.
“It’s one race, and it’s for nine seconds. It comes down to that day,” he says. “You could be crappy the day before, you could be crappy a month before, but it comes down to that day. That’s what I try to tell myself moving forward. You can have a couple of hiccups, but when it comes down to that final day, with 50 or 60 thousand people in the stadium, and everyone watching on TV, you’ve got to be ready for that moment.”
Andre De Grasse has been ready for that moment before.