PICKERING — Andre De Grasse has not forgotten his roots, no matter how rich and famous he has become on the international track scene.
De Grasse, who stunned many by winning a bronze medal in the 100-metre dash at the world championships last year, was back in familiar company earlier this month, if not entirely familiar territory.
The company was Tony Sharpe, his first track coach, and among the few he did not surprise by his spectacular performance in Beijing, where he finished behind only sprint legends Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin.
The territory was the Pickering Soccer Centre, a spectacular new indoor facility that not only boasts a full-sized European soccer pitch, but now also a four-lane, 135-metre straightaway track on which Sharpe and his Speed Academy club can train.
De Grasse, who turned pro and signed a multi-year deal with Puma worth $11.25-million U.S. shortly after the Worlds, was back in Pickering to check out the club’s new digs Feb. 12 -- and was impressed with what he saw.
“This is pretty good because when I actually come home and I train with Tony, this will be a perfect place for me,” said De Grasse, who now trains in Arizona. “It’s big enough to actually do a workout.”
In fact, as Sharpe points out, it’s the only indoor facility in the GTA that offers a full-sized straightway for sprinters.
The Speed Academy, which trains outdoors when weather permits at St. Mary Catholic Secondary School, had previously been running indoors at the Abilities Centre, but the 200-metre oval there is no longer offered to track clubs, Sharpe said.
So, the timing of the new track in Pickering couldn’t have been better.
“It’s a huge advantage for our kids to be able to sprint out 100 metres in an indoor facility at this time of the year, especially during the transition period where we’re competing in the States in warm weather outside, but we can’t actually train outside in Canada,” he explained. “It’s one of a kind in the GTA.”
Sharpe, who won a bronze medal with Canada’s relay team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, has been running the Speed Academy in Pickering for 10 years and has helped more than 30 athletes earn scholarships to the United States.
His first contact with De Grasse is now well-known: at a meet to watch one of his own club athletes, Sharpe’s eye was caught by a kid from Markham in basketball shorts who stood upright at the start and broke the 11-second barrier despite poor mechanics.
That kid, of course, was De Grasse, who now routinely breaks the 10-second barrier in the 100m and holds the Canadian record in the 200m.
The two soon after hooked up and De Grasse’s potential was tapped to the point where he ultimately landed a scholarship to the University of Southern California and won double gold at the both the NCAA championships and Pan Am Games last year, in the 100m and 200m.
Now just 21, it’s likely De Grasse will be at his peak for the 2020 Summer Olympics, but Sharpe wouldn’t be surprised to see him take a run at a medal in his Olympic debut in Rio this summer.
“He’s really just starting and to be a bronze medallist at the Worlds after four years in the game, he knocked off a lot of big names last year,” Sharpe raved. “To put any limits on what he might do in Rio would be silly because he’s on the upswing.”
To his credit, and despite his new-found fame, De Grasse remains humbled and grounded at the same time as driven to succeed.
He said the decision to pull out of his final year of NCAA eligibility in order to turn pro was a difficult one, and does not mean he’s leaving his education behind.
“My degree’s very important to me because I know when I’m done track and it’s all over 10 years from now, or however long, I’m going to need something to fall back on,” he said, explaining he will return to finish his sociology degree in the fall. “That degree is important for me to move on with my career after track’s over.”
De Grasse, who made his pro debut at the Millrose Games in New York Feb. 20 and won the 60-metre indoor race, said his training is just now reaching the intense stage as he aims to be at his best for the Aug. 5-21 Rio Games.
Admittedly somewhat nervous when he first lined up alongside the likes of Bolt, the six-time Olympic gold medallist and world record holder from Jamaica, De Grasse said he’s now comfortable and eager to give him a run for his money -- even if a little wowed by it all.
“Definitely sometimes I have to pinch myself and see if this is real,” he joked. “Last year felt like it was a roller-coaster, am I ever going to wake up, and now it’s like I can’t believe this is all happening in my career. It’s taken off, so I’ve just got to go with the flow.”