De Grasse relishes chance to meet kids

TORONTO – Andre De Grasse stood against the track railing Tuesday while a throng of schoolchildren a dozen deep thrust articles of clothing at him with tiny hands. The Canadian sprint star seemed like he’d happily sign autographs all day before a handler eventually ushered him away.

The Canadian sprint star has raced on the world’s biggest stage. But it was at a children’s track meet that he realized how much of an impact he’s having on the sport.

“This is the first time (I’ve seen anything like this),” said De Grasse, the most successful sprinter Canada has had in almost two decades. “I never thought I was such an inspiration like this, and that kids looked up to me. It’s pretty cool, I’m speechless about it.”

The 21-year-old from Markham, Ont., is coming off back-to-back Diamond League victories, winning gold in both the 200 metres in Birmingham, England, and the 100 last Thursday in Oslo, Norway.

The young star is getting his first taste of the prestigious international circuit in his rookie season as a professional athlete. But the bright lights of the global meets, he said, don’t compare to coming back home.

“It’s totally different. This is my country, this is Toronto, this is Canada, these kids look up to me, you never really see that in other places as much as here, so it’s pretty cool,” De Grasse said. “They inspire me right now to keep it going, because they’re just telling me ‘Go Andre, go Andre!’ That’s kind of cool to me.”

De Grasse chatted with Toronto Mayor John Tory before the two were introduced to the crowd at the TDSB (Toronto District School Board) elementary school championships. The kids packed the railing clamouring for autographs, shoving T-shirts and hats at the smiling sprinter.

“That’s so cute,” said his mom Beverley, watching the mini-mob scene. “I was surprised when we got here, with the young kids, how they were screaming his name, how much they know about him. I think it’s good, I think he can have a really big impact on young kids. That’s what I would like to see.”

De Grasse is in a transitional season. He turned pro last winter and then swapped his training base at USC for Altis in Phoenix.

“It’s totally tough, training environment has changed, coaching has changed, I’m just trying to get used to it,” he said. “But it’s going well now, I can’t complain.”

By this time last year, the wiry runner had raced over 30 times as part of a taxing NCAA season. He would eventually run a whopping 54 races, culminating in his pair of world championships bronze medals, in the 100 metres and 4×100 relay.

This season? He can almost count the races on one hand.

“I feel good, my body feels way better than before,” he said. “Coming back from last year, running 50 races, it was really tough on my body, now I’ve only run six or seven races, so I’m feeling pretty good going into (Olympic) trials, and then I’m going to be fresh for the Olympics.”

Being in top form in August in Rio has been coach Stuart McMillan’s plan all season. But it was a tough test of De Grasse’s patience, especially when he opened the outdoor season with an eighth-place finish in the 100 at the Prefontaine Classic late last month.

“It was pretty tough in the beginning of the season, I lost a couple of races, but now I’m starting to find my form, and starting to win a couple of races now and starting to find myself,” he said.

“It messes a little bit with your confidence. But me, I know I’m a confident athlete, I know I’m going to always bounce back, there’s always going to be those tough losses. But talking to my coach, talking to my family and friends, they give me motivation all the time to keep it going and don’t worry about your last race, it’s always about your next race.”

His next race is Friday at the Harry Jerome International Track Classic in Burnaby, B.C. Canada’s Olympic trials are July 7-10 in Edmonton.

His goal for Edmonton is to run sub-10 seconds in the 100, and sub-20 in the 200 — feats he accomplished last season, but has yet to do this year.

He’s also excited for Canada’s 4×100 relay, especially after teammate Aaron Brown’s speedy 9.96 clocking last weekend.

“Now that Aaron has stepped onto that platform, running sub-10 seconds, it’s good for our relay team,” De Grasse said. “Now maybe we have a chance to compete with Jamaica and the U.S.A. It’s really good for our confidence.”