Born to Run
He wanted to be a basketball player. Or an HVAC installer. Or a mechanic. Anything but a runner. And yet somehow, the skinny kid from Markham found himself on the brink of becoming the fastest man on earth
Above all else, Andre De Grasse is chill. It’s his go-to adjective, noun and verb. It describes his default setting and world view. Track and field is chill. So is practice. Sponsorship deals are chill. Getting invited to celebrity-laden parties with Cardi B on the mike? Very chill. His public beef with Usain Bolt: both chill and “all cool.” In the exceedingly chill world of Andre De Grasse, even bad things are chill: his long-estranged parents, Beverley and Alexander, have a strained relationship, which he finds, you know, pretty chill. Sometimes he’ll work in an alternative, like “laid back” or “cool,” but what he really wants to say is chill.
De Grasse lives in Phoenix with his girlfriend, the U.S. hurdler and sprinter Nia Ali. For a while, he had his own two-bedroom condo, but six months ago, he moved into her place nearby. He’d been spending a lot of time there anyway, so it made sense. Ali has a three-year-old son, Titus Maximus, from a previous relationship, and they all live together in a big house with a pool. De Grasse is comfortable around kids, and his relationship with Titus is a good one—he’s more uncle than stepfather in nature. Ali is a Philly native, blunt and excitable, and funny with assessments of her partner. When I asked her to describe their compatibility, I realized I should have known better. “We’re both pretty laid back, pretty chill,” she said. Lately, there is news: in late June, Ali and De Grasse welcomed their daughter, Yuri Zen. At just 23, De Grasse has become a father, a huge moment in a man’s life and probably an opportunity for reflection. I asked him how he felt about it. Your guess is correct.
For an international celebrity, De Grasse is an odd fit. He owns three Olympic medals and stands on the edge of the most vaunted title in all of sports—Fastest Man in the World—yet he still drives a Honda Accord, collects Air Miles, saves his money religiously and is uncomfortable with the weight of fame. But the most peculiar thing about De Grasse is how blasé—how goddamn chill—he is about a sport essentially defined by pomp and bombast, by swaggerific entrances and Boltian arrow poses, by mountainous egos and cosmic score-settling (was there a better Canadian sporting moment in the ’90s than the Bailey versus Johnson showdown? Okay, yes, but not many). He is dead set on conquering the track world and assuming the mantle Usain Bolt recently gave up and yet is entirely non-emotive about it. But here’s the irony at the heart of Andre De Grasse, the secret that no one else seems to realize, at least not yet: De Grasse’s unflappable, quintessential chill is precisely what makes him so insanely good.
The 129A McCowan northbound bus runs from Scarborough Town Centre to Major Mackenzie Drive East in Markham, stopping at Highway 7, which is where Andre De Grasse hopped on in the winter of 2011. He was on his way to an auto repair shop, where he was learning to fix transmissions and do oil changes as part of his Grade 12 co-op placement. On the bus, he spotted a friend named Mikhile Jeremiah, who was wearing sprinting tights and track pants, and clutching track spikes. Jeremiah, a student at nearby Markville Secondary, explained that he was headed to practice at York University, and he invited De Grasse to watch him at an upcoming meet. De Grasse laughed. He thought track was dumb, and he said as much: “What, you’re just…running against people?” It was a non-starter. Then Jeremiah mentioned that there would probably be girls there, and De Grasse’s stance softened. If he did show up—if, De Grasse said—it would be to compete, not observe. Plus, he added, half-jokingly, he’d probably beat Jeremiah. “Okay,” Jeremiah said, “come prove it.”
The York Central Regionals brings together the best runners from the area. Some are highly trained, and you can tell. They are breathtakingly fast, exploding out of the blocks and gradually, not instantly, rising to full height so as to cut through the air rather than push against it. At full speed, they’re a blur of limbs whirring at the edge of control. Scholarships to the very best colleges in the U.S. are on the line, so the stakes are high.
De Grasse showed up in shiny blue basketball shorts and Converse sneakers, and walked around aimlessly until he found Jeremiah, who was surprised to see him—he’d assumed his friend wouldn’t show. Jeremiah delivered a quick primer on how to warm up and how the heats worked. De Grasse had no spikes; he lined up in his Cons for the 100 metres. He’d never touched starting blocks before, so when it was his turn to run, he removed them and half-crouched at the starting line like a shortstop, which made the race official laugh. The pistol sounded, and De Grasse exploded from his position, quickly hurtling to the head of the pack. His head bobbed wildly—he was staring skyward in one moment and at his toes the next—and his shoulders were hiked up awkwardly beside his ears. In the finals, he crossed the finish line in 10.91 seconds, roughly a second slower than Donovan Bailey’s world record in Atlanta and just under two seconds off the current record of 9.58, set by Usain Bolt. (Jeremiah, meanwhile, failed to advance.)
It was a dazzling achievement, but no one much cared, except for a man in the crowd named Tony Sharpe, an Olympic bronze medallist for Canada in the 4 x 100 relay at the 1984 Games, and now the head of an elite track and field school in Pickering called Speed Academy. Most kids make a thumping or slapping sound when they run; De Grasse produced a violent ripping sound, at once light and powerful, and Sharpe could hear the young man’s potential as much as he could see it. He introduced himself, handed over his business card, and asked him to tell his mother to give him a call.
Beverley De Grasse was born in Trinidad and Tobago, the youngest of 10 kids. She was the fastest sprinter in her grade in elementary school, but jobs were scarce and her parents didn’t see much value in a career on the track, so in high school, she stopped running. At age 26, she followed her brother and sister to Canada in search of work and settled in Scarborough, where she met a Barbadian man named Alexander Waithe. Andre was born on November 10, 1994, by which time she and Alex had already split. Beverley worked in a factory sorting mail before it arrived at Canada Post, making roughly $10 an hour, and lived in a small basement apartment near Finch and Midland, splitting the space and the $750 rent with a friend.
Andre was a busy kid, brimming with energy. As a toddler, he would scamper up the stairs toward the street so often that Beverley had to install a gate to keep him penned in. In the evenings, she would take him to the field opposite their apartment and let him run—and he would, endlessly, gleefully. When Andre was four, he won the award for most goals in the season on his soccer team. Later, he discovered basketball, and when Beverley came through the door after work, he’d be standing there, shoes and uniform on, raring to go.
Andre was so gifted in everything he tried—baseball, soccer, basketball—that he found practice torturously dull. He was distractible and easily bored. It didn’t help that he was popular with just about everyone, so stretching became an opportunity to chat. So did warm-up laps, drills and cool-down. He was loose and imprecise with his form, and it drove Beverley crazy, but he always excelled when it mattered.
Beverley certified as an early childhood educator through Seneca College, completing assignments on her lunch breaks and in the evenings. Andre would stay at his uncle’s place while she was in school, and he began to act out. Her program stopped during the summer, and one day Andre asked her if she was going to be around more often. When she said yes, he wrapped his arms around her legs, hugged her tight and wouldn’t let go. She soon landed a job in a daycare, one of three staff tending to 24 toddlers.
Finances were tough on a single salary, but by late 2000, Beverley had saved enough to buy a modest two-bedroom semi in Markham. She and Andre did everything together—homework, vacations, delivering the paper (she would drive him, much to her annoyance). Andre would see his father, who had other kids by another woman, on weekends. Beverley and Alexander didn’t get along well, but Andre didn’t get worked up about that, or anything, really. In the De Grasse household, there were no adolescent meltdowns or blowups, no shouting matches or door slams. “I’ve never seen this kid angry, you know?” says his mom. “Upset? No.” He was observant and pensive, always processing but rarely sharing his conclusions. Mostly, he found life amusing. When Andre would stay out past curfew, Beverley would call and chew him out over the phone. Instead of getting worked up, Andre would put her on speakerphone so his friends could hear, and they’d all crack up. He was similarly unshakable when it came to sports. If he made a mistake, he’d forget about it instantly. There was no self-flagellation over a dropped pop fly or turnover at the buzzer.
Of all the sports he played, De Grasse was best at basketball, and he worshipped Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson, the brightest NBA stars at the time. The original “dribbling dino” Raptors logo was hand-painted on the wall above his bed. After Grade 9, he begged his mom to let him transfer to Vaughan Secondary, where he’d have played alongside future NBA star Andrew Wiggins, but that school was 30 minutes in the opposite direction of Beverley’s work, and she would have had to drive him, so she refused. Plan B, the nearby Bill Crothers Secondary, was an option, but Andre’s marks were too low. Beverley agreed to his third choice, nearby Milliken Mills, so De Grasse transferred for Grade 11, only to see his team fold a year later because the coaches’ contracts had expired.
The timing was catastrophic. De Grasse was a polite, loyal, kind-hearted kid, but he was also impressionable, listless and often lazy, and without basketball, he was lost. At a time when most of his classmates were preparing their university applications, De Grasse began staying out late, partying, skipping school and ignoring his homework. His closest friends, Jermaine Chisholm and Zach Fox-Tapper—two soft-spoken jokesters who lived in the neighbourhood—played basketball for a travelling team and were often out of town, so De Grasse found a new circle, kids who smoked pot and dabbled in home theft. De Grasse was more of a hanger-on than a leader, but unless something changed, it seemed he’d only sink deeper into trouble.
As the end of his Grade 12 year approached, De Grasse’s vice-principal stopped him in the hall and asked whether he’d applied to any colleges—his grades weren’t good enough for university. He hadn’t, so they filled out a few applications together and sent them off. The prospects weren’t great, but, as always, he was unperturbed. He had considered becoming a mechanic, or maybe a phys-ed teacher. His friend Mikhile Jeremiah was planning to get into the HVAC installation business, and De Grasse figured if all else failed, he could join him. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was something.
De Grasse had never thought about track as a career, so when Tony Sharpe told him he had a gift, he was intrigued, albeit mildly. He asked his mom to call. Eventually, during her lunch break at the daycare, she did. “I’ve never seen such raw talent,” Sharpe said. “Your son has a chance to be special.” Beverley agreed to let Sharpe work with Andre on a few basics ahead of the all-Ontario competition, OFSAA, in Brockville.
On the day of the meet, June 7, 2012, Beverley drove to watch him, assuming he wouldn’t make the finals and she’d be home by dinner. To her surprise, Andre finished second in his heat. He then placed fifth in the finals, with a wind-aided 10.62 (any time with a tailwind of over two metres per second gets an asterisk in the record books). The kid who’d started running one month earlier was now the fifth-fastest in the province.
In July, De Grasse was invited to the Toronto International Track and Field Games, a high-profile meet featuring the eight fastest boys in Ontario. He beat them all, running a 10.59. His competitors stared, confounded: who is this guy? De Grasse didn’t know how the podium worked—he stood at one end, and the other medallists had to direct him to the middle. Still, he wasn’t enthused. He didn’t find sprinting exciting, especially compared to the razzle-dazzle of the NBA. He wasn’t enamoured of track’s stars or its history—he knew Donovan Bailey only from a blurb in a high school textbook. He also found track desperately lonely, with no teammates to strategize, commiserate or celebrate with.
De Grasse was thinking about Durham College, a technical trade school in Oshawa, but Sharpe had different plans. He got on the phone to a few community colleges in the U.S. and told them about the most impressive young runner he’d ever seen—raw, undisciplined but unfathomably talented. Coffeyville, a small junior college in Kansas, offered a partial scholarship, which would cover his tuition. It was a golden escape from suburban ennui, but De Grasse declined. He didn’t want to go all the way to Kansas, didn’t really want to run and wasn’t even convinced he was all that fast. He could beat some Ontario kids, yes, but college track was different. Beverley was exasperated. Finally, she told him he was going, and that was the end of it.
A collection of dorms and buildings plunked down in the middle of Kansan farm country, Coffeyville was essentially removed from civilization. “He said he seen cows,” says Beverley, chuckling. “The closest mall was in Oklahoma, and he didn’t have a car, so he wasn’t going anywhere.” De Grasse earned a 3.5 GPA, surprised at how easy school was when he tried. On the track, he turned in stellar results, the best of which was a 9.96 at the National Junior College Athletic Association championships, his first sub-10-second result. Top-tier universities soon came calling, including the University of Southern California, which has an excellent track program in addition to a top-flight academic reputation, and they offered a scholarship. At Coffeyville, De Grasse was competing against a lower tier of college athletes; at USC, he’d be pitted against the very best. He accepted.
His first big test was the NCAA Track and Field Championships in June 2015, where he faced off against the top sprinters in the U.S., including Trayvon Bromell, one of the fastest-rising stars in the sport and the consensus favourite. De Grasse, by comparison, was a total unknown—the ESPN announcer kept calling him “Degrawssi”—but he trounced Bromell with a wind-aided time of 9.75, and then won the 200 metres too, at 19.58. Suddenly, there was a new name in college track.
The next month, De Grasse returned home to Canada for the Pan Am Games, and won double gold in the 100 metres and 200 metres—the latter a Canadian record—at York University, across the street from the track where Sharpe had discovered him just three years earlier.
De Grasse had decimated the college ranks and swept the Pan Ams, but he hadn’t yet faced off against the world’s best: specifically, Bolt—the fastest man on earth—and the American sprinter Justin Gatlin. In August, at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, he found himself warming up before the finals beside both men. Back home, Jeremiah, who was in the process of becoming an HVAC installer, was watching the race live on TV when his phone rang. It was De Grasse, and he wanted to know, if track didn’t work out, could he join Jeremiah in the HVAC business? “Dude! Just go run your race!” Jeremiah said. “We can work it out later.” De Grasse tied for third behind Bolt and Gatlin. He’d proven himself on the world stage.
Suddenly, the calls from prospective agents and sponsors flooded in, all urging him to turn pro. It was an agonizing decision. Beverley had always prioritized education above all else, but she also recognized that the window for her son to capitalize on his skills was small. She made him promise he’d return to complete his degree, then gave her blessing.
Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and the Chinese companies Xtep and Li-Ning entered the bidding, though the best offer came from Puma. The German company had built its brand on the back of Usain Bolt—their motto is Forever Faster—but Bolt was soon retiring, and the company needed a new ambassador. In De Grasse, Puma saw a sponsor’s dream: handsome, high cheekbones, long lashes, bedroom eyes, a squeaky-clean image, a mama’s boy in the Horatio Alger mould. They offered De Grasse $15 million (Cdn.) over 10 years, with performance incentives built in that could double it, and agreed to cover the cost of his final semester at USC. In November 2015, he signed the deal, the most lucrative initial contract ever signed in the world of track. For a kid from a lower-income, single-parent household, the moment was stunning. It was a chance to secure his financial future. “I was like, is this real? Did this just happen? Did I just do that?” says De Grasse. He didn’t buy anything for himself—he already had his trusty Honda Accord—but he bought his mom a shiny black BMW X6 for her birthday and set her up for retirement. He also asked her to quit her job, and today gives her a regular stipend so she doesn’t have to worry about finances. She had sacrificed so much while he was a kid. This was his way of saying thank you.
Once the contract was signed, De Grasse moved from L.A. to Phoenix to join the elite track school Altis in Paradise Valley. His new coach, Stu McMillan, a straight-talking Brit who grew up in Calgary, realized how poorly De Grasse understood the finer concepts of the sport. Experienced runners know how to blend the various stages of a race—start, acceleration, top speed—and how to play to their strengths. It appeared De Grasse had been operating mostly on instinct. In a sense, that was exciting: the kid had such freakish natural ability that a few tweaks could unlock huge potential.
McMillan began by focusing on De Grasse’s assets. As opposed to a powerhouse body like Bolt’s or Bailey’s, his was lean but supernaturally elastic. His gait was highly efficient, meaning he could generate an incredible amount of force with each millisecond of ground contact. His stride was impressively elongated—full extension forward and then nearly touching his heels to his butt on the recoil—and he had enough co-ordination to put the entire combination together and repeat it at a high rate. Plus, he had a killer instinct, at least when it mattered. During practice, he’d often get whooped by his training partners, especially in the early going, then go out and decimate them once it was for keeps.
There were maybe 30 athletes present at the Altis track in Phoenix when I visited this past February. Any of them could have graced the cover of Muscle and Fitness magazine, save for the sparrow-light and sinewy Canadian superstar in their midst. Each of the athletes was attentively honing some element of his or her craft, and it was surprisingly silent but for the occasional grrraaghh of a deep, final exertion, or a coach’s bark of encouragement. Amid the quiet intensity, De Grasse did warm-ups, his arms flopping lazily at his sides as he did kicks, his general expression somewhere between amusement and benign neutrality—practised or pure, I’m not sure.
In a world of track obsessives, De Grasse admits he is a different animal. He wasn’t raised in that milieu, and never dreamed of standing on the podium or vanquishing a Bolt or a Gatlin. In fact, away from the track, De Grasse hardly thinks about running. Once he’s in the blocks, it’s all fire and intensity and will to win, but in the lead-up to a big meet, he’s more likely to be thinking about last night’s Raptors game (still his favourite team) or the latest Fast and the Furious movie (a cherished franchise), so he isn’t prone to psyching himself out. His girlfriend, Nia Ali, puts it another way: “He can so easily turn his panic button off. That’s a good thing to have, in track, in life, in anything.” The skill isn’t so much mental toughness as mental indifference, but hey, it works.
During my visit to the Altis track, one of De Grasse’s coaches told me that the game plan was to improve his start and acceleration phases enough so that he’s at least “in contact” with the field after the halfway point, because that’s where De Grasse typically hits max speed. After that, few others can keep pace.
Seven months after he arrived in Phoenix, that idea was put to the test at the Rio Olympics. McMillan knew that De Grasse’s best asset relative to Bolt was his youth. At the time, Bolt was 29 and De Grasse only 21, which meant, at least in theory, he’d be able to recuperate faster. During the 200-metre semi-final, the two tore out to a commanding lead, Bolt in front, De Grasse a step behind. By the halfway mark, they had such a lead on the rest of the field that Bolt began to slow in order to conserve his energy for the upcoming final. But De Grasse didn’t let up; instead, as planned, he accelerated. Bolt glanced over his right shoulder, his eyes widening as he saw De Grasse pulling even. Bolt sped up. So did De Grasse. De Grasse flashed a smile, locking eyes with Bolt, then exerted a final burst. As Bolt crossed the line, first by two one-hundredths of a second, he grinned and wagged his finger at the young upstart—dozens of cameras clicked, capturing the moment. Bolt glanced nervously at the scoreboard and, once he determined that he had won, threw an arm around De Grasse, and they walked back to the line together.
The world was smitten. “This brotherhood continues!” exclaimed a CBC announcer. “They’ve been knuckling and high-fiving all week, and this is more of the same—‘Wait up for me, big brother!’ ” added the co-host. The U.K. Telegraph weighed in on the sweetness and light: “Usain Bolt and Andre De Grasse’s Bromance Continues to Blossom Before World’s Eyes at Rio Olympics.”
This was not, in fact, the case. There was no kinship, no warm feelings. Bolt felt disrespected and annoyed by De Grasse, and as they walked, he leaned in and chastised him. He knew that De Grasse’s gambit was calculated. And for a moment, it looked like it might work: according to McMillan, Bolt was seen being carted around in a wheelchair later that day, presumably wracked with fatigue or cramps, only to recover enough to beat De Grasse in the 200-metre finals. The damage, however, was done. When De Grasse went over to offer his congratulations, he extended a hand, and Bolt seemed to brush it away.
In the aftermath, Bolt, despite having won triple gold, carried on with his public sulk tour. After De Grasse told an interviewer that he felt like he could topple the sport’s reigning champ, Bolt told another interviewer that he’d never again anoint an heir apparent—“the last one disrespected me”—and in July dumped De Grasse from his Diamond League meet. Columnists churned out think pieces about the friction at the centre of the track world.
De Grasse, now a triple Olympic medallist, says he didn’t really care. He had executed a plan and figured Bolt was simply responding with his own gamesmanship. “I think he still liked that moment, it made us both look good, with both of us smiling. But you got to put on a little front, too,” he says. “When you’re the boss, you’ve got to be the boss.”
Feud or no feud, Puma loved the moment. In one viral snapshot, their superstar was passing the baton, and their multimillion-dollar investment was proving to be a steal. For De Grasse, it was a watershed moment, a stellar performance under the brightest lights. Other sponsorship opportunities came rolling in, from PwC, Gatorade, Lasik MD, Pizza Pizza, Gillette, Real Canadian Superstore and others. The City of Markham named a street after him. He modelled formalwear for the Harry Rosen magazine, appeared onstage at WE Day alongside Penny Oleksiak before a stadium full of shrieking tweens, attended the premiere of a Drake-produced documentary on Vince Carter during TIFF and presented an award at a Right to Play event. Even Mom got in on the act, partnering with the Jamaican packaged food company GraceKennedy to share her tips on jerk chicken and other dishes.
After the Olympics, De Grasse returned to USC to complete his sociology degree, fulfilling the promise he’d made to his mom. De Grasse trained at the school, working track sessions around his class schedule, though he couldn’t compete without violating NCAA rules. USC, realizing they had a star in their midst, honoured his scholarship anyway. He earned a 3.2 GPA and, the following May, delivered the graduation address to the school’s student athletes. Leaving track in the midst of such a run of success was a risk—he might get injured, lose his hard-earned fitness—but when he returned, he quickly reasserted his dominance. He went undefeated in four major meets leading up to the world championships, capped by a wind-aided 9.69 at a competition in Stockholm. De Grasse was finding he belonged on the track, at long last, and he was growing to love it, too.
What made the transition to the professional circuit easier was that Ali was at many of his meets. They had both signed with the same agent, Paul Doyle, and because they competed in the same events, were often on the same schedule. They joked around, Ali often poking fun at De Grasse for his innocent Canadian ways. Finally, at a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, U.K., Ali worked up the courage to invite him out. Over Caribbean food, they hit it off, and they began FaceTiming each other regularly. Before long, they’d established a relationship.
For De Grasse, life was good, personally and professionally. He was in the best shape of his life and posting record times. Then, just before the 2017 World Championships in London, calamity struck. During a light warm-up, De Grasse strained his hamstring. It was a grade-two tear on a three-grade scale, so hardly career threatening, but it meant he missed out on his last shot at defeating Bolt before he retired. De Grasse flew to Germany to see a specialist and watched the finals from a hotel room, heartbroken. Bolt finished third.
De Grasse used the time off to think about his future. The injury was a freak accident, but he couldn’t help but wonder whether the steady stream of appearances and sponsorship commitments had played a role, however small, by too frequently taking him away from his training. “He doesn’t know if he wants to be a full-fledged celebrity or just a regular guy,” says his friend Zach Fox-Tapper. “We tell him if he has time off, he should go be seen, be in the public eye. Especially outside of the Olympics, people will forget who you are.” But De Grasse’s default setting is to be low-profile. For years, even after making it big, he’d visit his mom and sleep in his tiny bedroom (she painted over his Raptors logo last year; he was devastated). He might order in some food and catch up with friends. If he goes out, it’s to a Joey restaurant near his place or Cactus Club downtown. In Phoenix, he and Ali take Titus to the aquarium, or horseback riding.
Celebrity has its perks, but privacy isn’t one of them. During a recent visit to Toronto, Ali wanted to take Titus to the Toronto Zoo. De Grasse quickly nixed the idea, fearing they’d be mobbed by fans. Later, he took Ali to a Jays game. As they walked to their seats, De Grasse was inundated with excited fans, all asking for autographs. Ali had known her boyfriend was a big deal, but not to what extent. (To date, they still haven’t been to the zoo.)
In the worst cases, people try to extract time, attention, endorsements or money from him. Friends of friends, grade school classmates and other long-lost acquaintances regularly emerge, first inflating their connection, then asking him to post a song or wear a clothing line, then getting uppity when he politely declines. “I only get pissed off when people try to take advantage of me,” he says. “Because people don’t realize I see what they’re doing because I’m so chill. That’s the only time I get annoyed. But I’m not going to turn up my heartbeat. I’ll just ignore you.”
Fortunately, those negative interactions are in the vast minority. During a recent visit home, De Grasse and a few friends went to play pickup basketball at the Markham YMCA. A swooping glass wall encircles the court, and within minutes, word had spread that De Grasse was in the building. Suddenly, the perimeter was chockablock with spectators. Passersby who weren’t Y members began pouring in to watch their local hero play, and staff eventually let them through without paying admission. After the games wrapped up—they went undefeated—De Grasse spent half an hour cheerfully signing autographs. Interactions like those prompted him to start the Andre De Grasse Family Foundation, as a way to help kids like him, talented but wayward, do productive things. The foundation’s first project is called the Future Champions Fund, which helps connect promising athletes with high-level coaching and academic consulting, so that more Canadian kids can follow De Grasse’s path. He also started an annual Markham basketball tournament—the Andre De Grasse Holiday Classic—as a way to pay it forward.
For all of his commitments and projects, however, priority one is to return to form on the track, to show his country and city, friends and family that he’s still the heir apparent. To that end, he trained all spring for Track and Field in the 6ix, an official NACAC event held at Varsity Stadium August 10 through 12, featuring top competition from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Unfortunately, in early June, he re-injured his hamstring and will be out of commission until 2019. It’s a heartbreaking setback, but there’s still plenty of time to be in peak shape for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Today, as De Grasse trains, it’s in a different context. He’s no longer the underdog. Instead, he’s the target, the one most opponents build their race plans around. The expectations for De Grasse are higher, and the burden, too. There isn’t a day when he doesn’t think about the Tokyo Games, either directly or indirectly. At 23, he’s still young, but sprinters typically get three cracks at the podium before joints get creaky and energy reserves turn shallow. His time, whether he knows it or not, is now.
In terms of pressure, insofar as De Grasse is capable of feeling any, it helps that in Phoenix, he’s essentially anonymous, except at the airport, where Canadian snowbirds line up for autographs, which he’s happy to give. Often, Americans will say, “You look familiar.” De Grasse always responds the same way: “Oh, no way. You must be thinking of someone else.” De Grasse comes home frequently—more so now that he has his green card—and he and his mom have finally upgraded to a new house, on a quiet suburban street, large enough to accommodate them both—plus Ali, Titus and the baby—but still relatively modest.
On my last day in Phoenix, De Grasse played pickup basketball with a couple of friends. He’d been invited to the NBA All-Star weekend in L.A., to play in the celebrity game, and he was keen to get some practice in. His coaches were Katie Nolan of ESPN and the former NBA star Paul Pierce. Jamie Foxx and Common were his teammates; Justin Bieber, Michael B. Jordan and NBA Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady—a childhood idol—were on the opposing side. De Grasse had also been invited to the GQ party, with a couple of plus-ones for his buddies. They were thrilled about that, giggling like boys, which, really, they are. A major topic of discussion was wardrobe: surely De Grasse should wear something splashy and expensive to make a statement. One friend had a line on a technicolour Versace jacket that retailed for $5,000. De Grasse wasn’t sold. It was something a big-name athlete like Usain Bolt—bold, flashy, braggadocious—might wear, and it seemed like De Grasse, preternaturally chill, was testing the fit.
When I left, they were playing H-O-R-S-E, laughing, cajoling, talking considerable trash. It was the first time I’d seen him so comfortable, and it was no surprise the moment involved basketball. If you squinted, you could see that kid in the Milliken Mills gym working on his crossover. A few days later, after he’d dropped 17 points and six rebounds during the All-Star Game, I checked his Instagram feed. He’d attended the GQ party and posted a photo of himself on the red carpet outside. Apparently he’d made a decision, both sartorial and philosophical. In the photo, he was wearing a black shirt and simple black-and-grey pants. Beneath it, a pithy, profound caption: “Keep It Simple.”
This story originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $24 a year, click